Posts Tagged writing life

Reading vs watching and The Night Manager – why I prefer the book

51qdfvUxcdL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.

You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.

Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).

That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?

Books are interior

A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.

415sjZHeUVL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.

Characters and reality

Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.

For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:

He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’

The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:

Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’

Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:

He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’

How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?

I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.

Feeling perceptive

The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.

Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.

And this.

Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’

A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.

Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.

Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.

Your own pace

And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.

51NAwF7BkIL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.

Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.

I love reading Nail Your Novel

Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.

Tell me your thoughts.

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The first book on writing I ever read – what was yours?

Most of us here probably have a shoal of books about writing craft. Here’s just one of my shelves.

writing bookshelf

But which was the first writing book you ever read?

For me, it was The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire. It was a gift from Husband Dave when we first met in 1992. It’s a tiny volume; just 87 pages including the index at the end and throat-clearing at the start. But it has everything you need – theme, viewpoint, planning, setting, characterisation, style, revision.

Dianne Doubtfire Nail Your NovelI flick through it now. At random, I can see sensible advice to use ‘he said’ instead of ‘she gushed’ or ‘he averred’. A section on writing description so the reader remains riveted, with examples from Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. A paragraph about keeping a notebook beside the bed, including a torch. An explanation of style as ‘a quality as unique as your fingerprints’. A quote from Alfred Hitchcock that ‘drama is like real life with the dull bits cut out’. A section on first chapters, positioned nearly half-way through, because ‘it’s wise to consider … planning, scene and characterisation before you type ‘Chapter 1’.

Other books may cover all of these in more depth, but as a primer it will get you going with good habits. I’d recommend it still today.

To begin at the beginning…

I’d studied English literature at school and university. Yes, we considered theme, character, resonance, symmetries and counterpoints in character arcs and story structure. And historical and social context, an author’s place in the overall evolution in the artform. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why good was good. Reading Dianne Doubtfire was like meeting someone who thought and felt about books in the way I wanted to.

Studying literature can put it in on a pedestal as a thing to be revered. It can paralyse you with feelings that you could never, yourself, presume to write to a standard that’s even readable, let alone half-creditable.

Dianne Doubtfire’s succinct, wise book made writing seem possible.

3 nynsPsst … Speaking of writing books, and flashing forwards many moons and scrumpled drafts, I’ve been jazzing up the Nail Your Novel covers. Take a peek here…

Can you remember the first writing craft book you read? How did you come to read it? How did it affect you? Did it open possibilities? Did it make it all seem impossible? If you still have a copy, what do you think of it now?

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Found in translation: three literary translators share tips and secrets

A few months ago I mentioned in one of my newsletters that I was submitting my novels to Amazon Crossing, and one of my Undercover Soundtrackers, Alison Layland, sent me a ‘good luck’ note. But I didn’t know that Alison is herself a literary translator – and that made me think it would be fun to run a post on this often unexplored corner of writing life. A call to my Twitter followers unearthed two more literary polyglots. So if you’ve ever wondered if translation would be a good career for you, or considered working with a translator, or are simply curious … read on.

Dramatis personae

Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward @fwdtranslations translates from French and German to English, particularly crime fiction, women’s fiction and children’s books. In non-fiction, she has translated recipe books and titles on history, art and politics.

Lisa Carter

Lisa Carter

Lisa Carter @Intralingo translates from Spanish into English. Her work includes literary fiction, historical fiction, a scientific thriller and clockpunk. She’s also done one work of non-fiction, by a Guatemalan Mayan shaman.

Alison Layland

Alison Layland

And Alison Layland @alisonlayland translates from German, French and Welsh into English. Her CV includes a range of nonfiction (travel guides, coffee-table photo books, a recipe book) and, in the last few years literary, crime and romance fiction, alongside her own novel writing. (Here’s her Undercover Soundtrack.) Her most recent translation, The Moonlit Garden by Corina Bomann, is published by AmazonCrossing on 1 February 2016.

To begin at the beguine

Rachel took a languages degree, then a literary translation MA. Alison also had a languages degree and became a freelance translator as a career change. Commissions came as she built up relationships with translation agencies and networked with other translators. Most of her fiction work has been for AmazonCrossing; they have an online portal where translators can register and apply for projects, and recommend books to be considered for translation.

Alison says that if your aim is purely literary translation, it’s often a matter of championing a work in your source language and submitting proposals to publishers – although it can be a frustrating and difficult path. Despite that, this is how Lisa Carter got her break. A collection of short stories by Edmundo Paz Soldán captivated her so deeply that she contacted the author. ‘We worked together and published a couple of his short stories, then I was hired to translate two of his novels for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.’

After that, commissions come from networking and contacts, and being in the right place at the right time. Alison says: ‘My non-fic books have come from translation agencies or direct enquiries via my profile or colleague referrals. My first literary translation, The Colour of Dawn by Haitian author Yanick Lahens, was commissioned by the publisher as a result of my winning a competition in which I translated one of the author’s short stories from French into English.’

Lisa says she’s seen a change in the way work comes to her. In the past, publishers would approach her to see if she was a good match for a particular book. But ‘in the last few years, more commissions are coming directly from authors.’

We’ll look at self-publishing in a minute. But first, let’s consider the literary translator’s most outstanding feature.

2637465223_ae2843bdd8_zThe chameleon factor

There’s more to literary translation than rendering the content accurately. Like ghostwriting, good translation is a work of interpretation. The final work must do justice to the writer’s style. I asked about the challenges.

Rachel: ‘Being able to adapt to a writer’s style is just as important as conveying the meaning. Some voices sit nicely alongside my own, while others take longer to settle into. I do a quick first draft and leave a lot of alternative wordings, and then go back over it again and again until I’m satisfied, or the deadline arrives. I get as many people as possible to read for me too, looking for anything that jars.

Alison: ‘I usually read the novel first, and possibly others by the author, to decide if there are any issues I need to think about. The voice develops as I translate (and often the early chapters need more revision). It can be quite different from your own voice, but again, your writer’s voice changes between different novels and stories.

Lisa: That’s exactly it: we are chameleons. We have to sublimate our own personal style to portray what we have been given, down to the very last detail. The challenge is how to reflect all of the nuances of an original, rather than keeping our own voice at bay. I spend a lot of time studying a text before I begin to translate it. I look for how an author created a certain tone or mood or effect – things like sentence and paragraph length, determining what literary devices are being used, finding all of the elements that are specific to an author and a particular book. Only after I have deconstructed the text do I allow intuition to take over and begin putting words on the page. I then compare my draft to the original, to make sure I’m being faithful. Whenever time allows—and I always try to build this into my contracts — I let the manuscript rest before another edit. Then, depending on the situation, I might send the manuscript to the author to read (if they are fluent enough in English) so we can discuss the work as a whole before submitting it to the editor.’

Lisa has a lovely post here on the daily grapple with nuance.

nameCredit where it’s due – how is a translator acknowledged?

Alison says translators are often overlooked in media reviews, radio broadcasts and festival programmes, but the recent #NameTheTranslator Twitter campaign aims to draw people’s attention to this. And to thank them when they do give credit.

Rachel says the translator’s name should come after the author – ‘eg Traitor by Gudrun Pausewang, tr. Rachel Ward, Andersen 2003. There is some dispute about whether the translator’s name should go on the front cover, but it should definitely be on the title page, and the translation copyright should belong to the translator, not the publisher.’

An occupational hazard

Alison points out an interesting hazard of the translator’s life: ‘On the few occasions when readers don’t like aspects of a novel – the characters or plot – they might attribute it to “something being lost in translation” – regardless of whether it is a translation issue.’

What about working with self-published authors?

Lisa has just begun a self-publishing venture with an author from Spain, Luis Sanz Irles. His novel was published traditionally in Spanish, and they will self-publish the translation into English. ‘I’ve been wanting to do this for years, and so am truly excited.’

Rachel says she has worked with self-published authors on a few occasions. She says there are artistic advantages – ‘you can go straight to the horse’s mouth with questions on meaning. I might suggest an explanatory aside or that it might be good to add something to help the reader with an unfamiliar idea.’ But this access has disadvantages: ‘Obviously we both want to get it right, but there has to be a cut-off point if it comes to haggling over words or beloved phrases.’ There are business angles to consider as well, and the translator has to take on the bulk of the marketing. Rachel has a lot more about this on her blog.

More advice, information and secret handshakes

Rachel and Alison recommend The Emerging Translators Network and the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors. And Lisa offers a ton of information and tuition on her website.

Thanks for the chameleon pic Swaminathan. Alison’s portrait is by Sandra Dalton.

Over to you! Have you worked with a translator or are you considering it? Have you worked on translations yourself? Is there anything you’d like to ask our intrepid trio? In the meantime, clavar tu novela.

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Three paradoxes of writing life

MC Escher Paradox of being a writerYesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.

1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.

Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)

Certainly, some books take a lot of time – but equally, you can tinker far too long and make a mess.

So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.

2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.

How did they do that? By reading with awareness.

Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)

Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.

You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books,  courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.

BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.

sidebarcrop3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.

Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.

But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.

(Pic by MC Escher)

That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!

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Vow of silence: how much do you talk about your novel in progress?

Nail Your Novel vow of silenceIf you’ve hung around here for a while, you might have spotted that I’m writing my third novel and it’s called Ever Rest. Assuming you give two hoots about it, or even just one, you’ll have noticed that’s about all I give away.

I’ve mentioned Ever Rest in posts where I talk about a writing challenge that taught me a new trick. I’ve occasionally asked for help on tiny points of research (glory be to Facebook and Twitter). I’ve revealed occasional pieces of music that I’m using in its Undercover Soundtrack. If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll get updates when I discover a particularly breathtaking piece – but I won’t tell you what it’s telling me. Aside from that, the most tangible thing I’ve ever revealed was when I whipped away its working title (I first introduced it as The Mountains Novel). Even in craft posts, I have not explained the slightest thing about the story or characters.

A time of sharing (no, not Christmas)
Am I the only author to feel so inhibited? It’s quite normal to post about characters in progress, or significant locations, or to pin pictures, or publish snippets or early chapters. It’s the ethic of contact, involvement, engagement. It keeps the fans topped up. Certainly I revel in our connected lives and I’m a confirmed social media junkie. But I can’t work with an open door. Or perhaps, because my books need a long gestation period, such sharing would usually be premature for me.

But wait…

Ah, no, I must confess to one lapse. On Facebook I was nominated in a round-robin to share seven lines from the seventh page of a work in progress. I suddenly imagined the fun of instant feedback so I threw caution aside and contributed a paragraph. I may have bent the rules. The excerpt probably wasn’t on page seven unless you squeezed the point size, and it definitely isn’t on page seven now. What’s more, it didn’t give much away about the novel, because without a context, it was just pretty lines. I enjoyed the fact that people seemed to like it – and thank you, commenters – but I felt even that had revealed too much. I felt I’d invited readers in too soon.

Also, as I edit, I realise I’m more protective of those lines, because people responded so warmly. What if, when it comes out, they were looking forward to that passage or the thing it promised? Chances are, they won’t remember it, but it’s skewing my judgement. Good writing needs a ruthless mindset; you include only what’s good for the book, not the pieces you like or the crowd-pleasers.

So this vow of silence is important to my writing method.

Nail Your Novel vow of silence 2

But we might need to pitch…

But sometimes we might have to talk about our WIPs. Won’t we? Suppose we’re at an event and get a chance to talk to an agent or publisher? Well, if the book isn’t likely to be finished for a good few months, you can probably sketch it vaguely and talk about your influences and experience. Agents won’t judge you until they can read you, and they might be grateful not to be pitched a book that’s a way off the finish line. (They’re certainly frustrated by the hordes of authors who send them three chapters of something that isn’t fully written.)

And what should you do if you tweak an agent’s interest? For heaven’s sake, don’t rush to finish. You don’t have to lose the opportunity – get connected on social media and chat with them occasionally to keep the contact warm. Send the book when you’re ready.

Even unto the husband

I don’t even tell Dave (Mr Roz) about Ever Rest. He knows the basic concept, because I brainstormed it with him in the early days. Correction: the early years. This book has been creeping through my mind for decades. When Dave asks how I’m getting on, he gets vague pronouncements like: ‘I thought this character wasn’t going anywhere, but I suddenly discovered what I needed.’ I think he’s learned there’s nothing more irritating than a spouse with a policy of Not Talking About Her Book.

And indeed, it is a policy. No matter what the provocation, I don’t discharge about my novel before it’s fit to be read. I believe in keeping the pressure bottled up, so I give the best of it on the page. The title of Ever Rest might, if you can be bothered, lead you to assumptions; but those, my friend, are merely the tip and I probably couldn’t explain it all anyway. To do that, I must finish the story.

Let’s discuss! Do you have limits on what you’ll share about a work in progress? What do you happily talk about? What do you keep under wraps?

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I rewrote my novel through a critique group but I’ve lost my way

too manycooks hugo90A conversation on Twitter about online writing groups made me remember I had this post, written nearly 4 years ago. I tweeted it and got so many messages about it I thought it might be worth an official rerun. So – if you’ve been with this blog since 2011 you might have a sense of deja vu. If not …. I hope this is useful.

…………………

I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.

During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?

Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.

A brainstorming draft

If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.

A learning draft

It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.

Take control

Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.

As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.

Get back to your vision of your book

First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?

Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.

When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.

Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.

Now to your manuscript

Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.

Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:

  • 1 initial gems with rough edges
  • 2 gems from the reworked version
  • 3 don’t-minds
  • 4 rejects.

File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.

If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.

Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.

Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments

Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr

nyn1badgeMore about handling critiques and drastic edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence

 

 

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Quirky tales and the difficulty of leaving a book behind: My Memories of a Future Life featured at Triskele Books

triskeleJW Hicks collects writers of quirky books, and I’m honoured she’s chosen me for her collection on the fab blog of the Triskele Books collective. (You might recognise Jane as a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack with her novel Rats.) She’s prised me out of my writing cage to answer questions on whether I start with characters or plot, what ghostwriting does to your writing style, how I keep track of ideas, and whether I worry the ideas will dry up. (In fact, I confess to acute separation anxiety when I finish a book. I don’t want to leave it. Does anyone else get that?)

Anyway, it’s all there at Triskele – you can get there with a hop, a skip or a tricycle .… or you could ask a soothing voice to guide you there in a dreamy state. At your own risk, of course.

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Living the stuff of novels: the ghostwriter’s lot

In this season of the notorious Zoella ghostwritten novel, I’m getting deluged with questions from people who know I ghostwrite. What’s it like? Who have I done? Well, I can’t tell you that because it’s a trade secret. Also because to divulge the details might get me shot. (Though I can give advice on how you get into it – here’s my recent post on that.) As the nation sings Zoella, Zoella, I thought you might like this piece on ghostwriting, originally penned for Authors Electric.

nick_blickWrite what you know? Ho ho ho

An acquaintance from my dance classes read My Memories of a Future Life last month and has since been seeing me in a whole new light. I can tell by the thoughtful looks he gives me as we wince through stretches and wobble through pirouettes; an expression that says ‘I never knew you had that weird stuff going on…’

After class the other day he said to me: ‘that freaky scene with the hypnosis in the underground theatre… you must have been to something like that?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s research and imagination.’ He looked a little disappointed.

I stomp on your dreams

Had that taken away a little of the magic? Do readers prefer to think they’ve been led through your rearranged memoirs than the fruits of your persuasive art?

Some clearly do. There’s a long tradition that people who’ve had extraordinary lives sit down to dash off a novel. Many of them are not writers, and so the actual words came from people of ordinary amounts of courage and glamour, in charge of something no more racy than a blank page.

I know; I’ve done it. This is the lot of the ghostwriter.

The ghostwriter

A publisher introduces me to an ‘author’, and I write the novel they would if they could.

A surprising number of writers ghost for others, leaving behind our literary egos to live on the page as someone totally different. (It’s great discipline and allowed me to develop a method for getting novels ship-shape to order – all boiled down into my writing books.)

No, I didn’t do Jordan or Madonna. For some reason, I’ve trended in testosterone, with a run of adventurers and special forces types. I don’t know why. I don’t have a Y chromosome, for starters.

I now have an arsenal of rather wonderful faked experience. Just as you never forget how to ride a bicycle, I’ll never forget how to fly a plane, microlight, glider, hang-glider, helicopter. Or handle guns. Or hotwire various vehicles. I’m a dab hand with plastic explosive. I can make you believe I’ve abseiled out of helicopters into thin air, tracked assassins through jungles and India’s most impoverished slums, humanely killed a fatally wounded rhino and inhumanely despatched drug bosses. And done a whole rainbow of hallucinogenics.

In real life, my passport rarely gets any outings. But between the covers I’ve out-trekked Michael Palin.

After all that, hypnotising someone in an underground theatre is child’s play.

Fake to fake

Once, I went to meet my publisher and arrived in time to see my ‘author’, giving a presentation to the sales reps. Behind him was a wall of advance copies, floor to ceiling like bathroom tiles. I stood at the back and watched while he enthralled them with titbits of the characters and plot in the book I’d built on my hard drive.

We were faking, both of us. He was faking being a writer. I had faked being the soul who lived the stuff of novels. I watched for a while, then like a good ghost, slipped out, unseen.

It always amuses me to hear that maxim, ‘write what you know’.

Any questions? You can ask whatever you like, but I may have to answer with a seraphic smile. Or tape over my mouth.

Thanks for the pic NIck_Blick

3nynsNAIL YOUR NOVEL PLOT BOOK Right now, chez Morris, the plot book is in the final throes of production. If you want to share my pain, er, pick up some handy professional tips, I’m currently formatting for print (part 1 and part 2). Then I’ll have to write the back-cover blurb (share the torture of that here). And if you’d like to know as soon as it becomes available, sign up for my newsletter. glownews

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A good editor helps you to be yourself

3498727510_6433d49095_oWhat publishing does very well is editorial. I’m not a great writer, but with a lot of polish and structuring, we’ve made a good product. My editor has been fantastic.

I found this interesting note in a piece on Futurebook. Porter Anderson was quoting a speech made by author George Berkowski in advance of the Futurebook conference. It got me thinking about the shaping role of editing, and some crucial differences between indie publishing and traditional.

A quick disclaimer before we proceed. This was not the point of Berkowski’s speech or Porter Anderson’s article. It is merely a sentence that simmered for me after I read it. Also, Berkowski is not talking about fiction, as this blog usually is. His book is How To Build A Billion-Dollar App. But a fiction manuscript is scourged and rebuilt just as thoroughly as non-fiction when it enters a publisher’s editorial department.

This is what I want to explore; how a submission can be greatly changed by editorial input. Improved, usually, but undeniably changed.

My point is the nature of that change.

Markets

When a publisher edits, they are focused on their market. That makes perfect sense, of course. Like any business, they aim to please their clientele. If your artistic vision is perfectly aligned with that, that’s terrific (though you still may have drastic rewrites ahead).

But if you’re not? Many a first-time author has been uncomfortable about editors who are dumbing them down, or imposing directions that strip away their originality. Generalising is risky, of course, as one person’s depth is another’s dense mess. But what is good for the publisher may not be good for your creative identity, your long-term brand or your book.

Dare to be different
When you self-publish, you choose the editor who most closely suits your style and vision. There’s a lot more room for you to be daring and different, if that’s what you want. An indie editor will discuss what you want the book to be. Or they can help you find it. They won’t try to force you in a direction. They will help you come into your own.

I have, in reporting on a client’s novel, suggested they are more naturally literary than, say, the thriller market they thought they were writing for; that they were forcing when they should follow their instincts. It goes the other way too. I’ve advised writers who thought they should write literary that their strengths are the gripping page-turner of world-burning mayhem. I’ve steered would-be historical novelists to write non-fiction, as their every fibre screamed against inventing people, scenes and dialogue.

Because I don’t have to please an imprint, I can consider what’s best for the writer. I can truly be the book’s advocate.

Don’t imagine, though, that this is an issue with every indie author. Many know exactly what they aim to write. But if they’re feeling their way, an indie editor will help them be more truly themselves. When such an author is accepted by a publishing house, the process will shape the book to fit the house’s requirements. An indie editor will help you work out what your own requirements are.

Second novels … and beyond

And what about subsequent novels? If you write a second novel that hits different notes from the first, a traditional publisher usually tries to make you change it. You might not have realised how that first novel sealed your doom.

Such feedback might be helpful, of course. On the other hand, many authors resent it. They’re only just discovering their potential. The indie world is full of first novelists who were dropped because they developed, matured or wanted to flex their art a different way. Certainly if I’d had a traditional publisher for My Memories of a Future Life, I would never have been allowed Lifeform Three as novel 2. I would have been told to write another contemporary odd literary book.

If you’re an indie author, your editor can help you embrace new directions. Or you are free to find a different editor.

My bias

I freely admit this post exposes my priorities. I am not the person to ask if you want to know about marketing or writing a commercial success. But I’ll certainly tell you the fundamentals of gripping readers and giving them a good ride, whatever you write. I’ll also say that success, both commercial and the deeper reward of satisfaction, comes from good craft and a thorough understanding of where you fit. If your heart truly beats for genre fiction, the devoted reader of that genre will sense it. They’ll also know if you’re painting by numbers. Your best chance of success is to find your groove, be true to yourself, whatever it is.

But this is another reason why indie publishing, at its most careful and respectful, is more likely to produce genuinely original books. Traditional publishing will edit a book for the good of a defined clientele. Sometimes everyone is happy, of course. But in a traditional publisher the priority is the company interest, not the author or the book. I’ve seen enough occasions when this created a ghastly compromise.

Indeed, readers are far more adventurous than publishers can accommodate. The reader couldn’t define for you what they want; they know it when a skilled author invents it. (And thus I refute the oft-repeated claim that indie authors are expert only in marketing, not in the art. But that’s a different brawlgame.)

It’s often said that successful marriage is one that makes you feel more yourself. A successful editor partnership will make your book more itself, not more like someone else.

Let’s re-visit the quote that began all this: ‘publishing is very good at editorial’. It may be, within limits. But I contend that indie authors whose values are originality and craft are doing it better.

Thanks for the pic Nick Holland

I have news! Lifeform Three is now on audiobook! It caused us many new challenges and I’ll be blogging about them soon. In the meantime, find it here….

lf3 audio ad

And let’s discuss – what’s your experience of working with editors, whether independent or within a publishing house? Have you ever been made to fit a mould that you suspected wasn’t truly suitable for your book? 

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15 Comments

Something wicked this way comes: plot book ready soon

3nynsThis week I’ve been pouring my grey cells into edits for Nail Your Novel 3 so I hope you’ll forgive this brief hiatus in my blogging schedule. The third Nail Your Novel book finally has a title (Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart), a cover and most of its insides. I’ve been adapting and greatly enlarging the posts I’ve published here into an in-depth exploration of what plot is, how it works and how to write a good one. In asking these questions I’ve taught myself a thing or three as well.

If you’re eager for a taster right now, one of my recent shows at Surrey Hills Radio discussed plot – you can find it on this page as show no 6 (we’re working on getting proper titles but we don’t have control of the website!).

The plot book should be out within the next month … hopefully. I’m waiting for comments from my critique partners so I reserve the right to be coy about the actual release date in case they find a howling omission or other embarrassing disaster. If you want to know the very moment it’s out, you can get my newsletter here.

glownews

I’ll be back with a proper post next week. I hate to miss a week but sometimes we need to. How about you? Do you have a strict blogging schedule? What makes you bend it? Til next time… R xx

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