My guest this week says her novel is steeped in music – and indeed had a massive Spotify playlist to accompany her drafts and rewrites. But certain tracks stood right out, tracks that seemed to catch her attention from the radio, or stick in her mind with an essential flavour of the characters and story. They’re strong vocals – Van Morrison, Rihanna, The Lumineers, Adele. Powerful, sassy, feisty, rocky, tormented and brimming with humanity – and perfect for her novel of obsessive revenge after love goes wrong. Do drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Stephanie Gangi.
I wish I’d written… three books that challenge me to raise my game
Continuing my occasional series. These are novels that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
I mentioned this in my post last week. A woman decides to turn vegetarian, a very unusual and subversive act in South Korea, where the story is set. Her husband thinks she has lost her mind. At a business dinner he is humiliated when she refuses to eat. Worse still is the reaction of her own family, who see it as a deeply threatening act of rebellion, and resort to acts of such cruelty that she tries to commit suicide. Her brother-in-law, meanwhile, who witnesses this horrific scene, finds he feels a sudden and unexpected kinship with her. This slowly erodes his tolerance for his ordinary wife and ordinary life.
There are two things I admire about this slim novella. First is its elegance. It begins with such a simple act, but one that travels, sure as a laser, to the very core of the characters’ insecurities. All are deeply upset by her refusal to conform. Most react by bullying. Others are themselves transformed. I also admire is its handling. You can probably see from my description that this concept has the potential to be overwrought; melodramatic in the wrong hands. It might even be hard to believe. However, it is thoroughly beguiling because of its psychological truth and the simple, yet poetic prose (and credit must go to the translator’s fine and sensitive interpretation – I should probably seek out books by her too). My review is here
Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute
Wounded soldier Alan Duncan reluctantly returns home to his parents’ farm in Australia to recuperate after the war. He discovers the family in turmoil because their young housekeeper, Jessie, has committed suicide. As he searches through her belongings, he realises that the woman was actually Janet Prentice, the former girlfriend of his brother, who died in action. And Alan, who is broken psychologically as well as physically, has spent a considerable amount of time trying to find her.
I’ve yet to read a Nevil Shute that didn’t seriously impress me. A slight criticism is that I find his set-up a little slow, but once his stories are running, they are beautifully paced and full of smart surprises. And his stories shine with humanity. He involves you in every emotion of his troubled characters. His settings are at once down to earth, yet ingeniously suggest something bigger and eternal. He’s deft with structure too – the storylines align into a tragic study of the impossible human burdens of war. If I need to be reminded of how character+setting+structure+pace = a darn good read, Shute is my motivator. My review is here.
The Crossing by Andrew Miller
This is a study of a woman, Maud Stamp, who is an independent and lone spirit. Others seek to connect with her, and are disturbed or fascinated – or both – when they cannot. One of its triumphs is the way Miller can inject you into Maud’s thought processes and emotions, painting her with such empathy and curiosity that you understand what it is like to have her peculiar wiring. Moreover, she is not presented with any easy or fashionable ‘explanations’ for her personality. You won’t find anything as pat as a reference to Asperger’s or even a past trauma. She is just Maud; a unique creature, created carefully, skilfully and truthfully. The arc of the story is her marriage and its dissolution; this forms the framework of beginning, middle and end. The crossing referred to in the title is a solo sea voyage she takes in the second half of the book, a rite of passage in both the literal and the symbolic sense.
Another great pleasure of this book is Miller’s immersive, persuasive prose. Every line is beautifully turned, but it never trips up the narrative. It’s plain when it needs to be, enchanting when that’s called for. You will find moments of delight and poetry, but the story will keep pulling you on. Although I found the ending was rather unsatisfying, the journey more than compensated. I think it won’t be long before I take this crossing again.
My review is here.
Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?
Pace and story structure: a blueprint for keeping the reader gripped
I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:
Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?
There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.
In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.
First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening.
When to speed up or slow down?
This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.
Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.
More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.
So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along.
How to keep the sense of pace?
This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.
This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)
Where to place the peaks and troughs of action and emotion
And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).
The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.
Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?
Yes and no.
Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.
Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.
Why no, again? Because all stories need change.
There’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.
NEWSFLASH Chance to WIN 2 print copies
So many readers of My Memories of a Future Life have told me they wanted to discuss it with a friend. So I dreamed up a special idea to mark the relaunch with the new cover. Enter the giveaway on Facebook and you could win 2 copies – one for you and one for a like-minded soul. Closing date is this Wednesday, 12 Oct, so hurry. This could be the beginning of a beautiful book club… but don’t enter here. Follow this link and go to Facebook.
Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.
‘Hope, chaos and a fighting spirit’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Deborah Andrews
I settled down to read this week’s Undercover Soundtrack contribution and what did I find? The writer seemed to have plundered some of my own favourite tracks. Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting (though if you’re as much of a Kate Bush nut as I am you could be forgiven for thinking I was going to make an orchestral hat trick with Symphony in Blue). Not only has my guest served up a stirring soundtrack, she’s also made big waves with the novel she’s showcasing – securing a position on the shortlist of the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. She says music is the emotional heart of the novel, speaking of relationships, times, hope, love and validation. Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Deborah Andrews and Walking The Lights. Yes, despite the cover change, the blog is still resolutely red.
Reading vs watching and The Night Manager – why I prefer the book
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.
Tell me your thoughts.
Three diagrams to make your plot a page-turner
I’ve had this question from Elizabeth Lord: I have just finished your book Nail Your Novel and found it extremely helpful for the rewrite phase of my novel. You mention graphs as a way to see where plots are plodding and character arcs intertwine – do you have any examples?
What a good question! Diagrams coming up.
First, though, a bit of explanation. Readers get bored if the plot appears to be predictable – ie the characters start with a goal and proceed doggedly towards it, step by step by step. This is a linear plot and it looks dead dull, like reading the syllabus for an education course, not a story. So when the characters have a clear goal at the start, we try to introduce developments that upset expectations. They’re going on the Orient Express? Great. Make one of them miss the train. Now everyone has a new problem that matters far more.
The major changes diagram
So your first drawing exercise is to go through the plot looking for points where you throw in a development that changes the characters’ priorities in a significant way. Make a ‘didn’t expect that’ diagram.
You want several of these developments, BTW, and they’ll probably be the main turning points in the story. Note also that they’re emotional. They’re about changing the characters’ goals – the things they want, the things that matter to them. So early in the story, they’re trying to catch a murderer. By the end of the story, they’re trying to stop the murderer killing their wife. Or murderer and detective are embroiled in a towering love affair.
The highs and lows diagram
Another helpful diagram might look at the main characters’ emotional state throughout the book. You want them to feel increasingly pressured and troubled, and you want their worst moment to be the climax of the book. So try a diagram where you look at their levels of joy and achievement versus despair. The joy part isn’t so important, although you want to give your characters a few breaks so that the disasters are more agonising – and also to show what matters to them. Make sure the despair increases in magnitude as the story proceeds.
The un-convenience diagram
You can look for smaller reversals too. You might not realise you’ve made everything too easy for your characters. Every time they need to accomplish something, make it harder than they expect. Or make it backfire. You can check on this by going through your manuscript and drawing a little circle whenever you’ve thwarted your characters.
If you have a lot of little circles, you’ll probably keep your reader gripped. If you haven’t, you know to throw some spanners into their spokes.
Compare your plot strands at a glance
If you have several plot strands or main characters, you could combine them on one diagram and use different colours. Thus you will see, at a glance, how your character arcs intertwine and if you like the harmony of their highs and lows. Or you might spot a general lull where several characters seem to be having a successful run – in that case, it might be good to rework the story and introduce a setback or twist. If you’re the kind of person who has music manuscript paper lying around (how stylish of you), you could draw your diagrams on the staves, like lines for different instruments.
X-ray your plot
The serious point is this: these exercises are ways to extract and visualise important plot mechanisms that might otherwise be invisible to you, and help you fix problems with the structure and pacing. Have fun!
Elizabeth’s question was inspired by a section in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. There’s also a lot more about plot and structure in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
Do you draw diagrams to assess your plot – or any other aspect of your book? Share them here!
Keep the faith: a mindset to put criticism in perspective… and a tip to stay inspired through multiple revisions
The students at my Guardian masterclasses always keep me on my toes with great questions and suggestions. (I teach advanced self-editing for fiction writers aka ‘put your book through the wringer and feel great afterwards’.) Here’s a discussion that I thought was too good to keep to ourselves.
Question: how to take criticism
One writer remarked that she found it deeply painful to receive criticism about her work. Not because she thought she didn’t need it. She keenly appreciated that a perceptive critical appraisal would be full of helpful pointers. She would act on its suggestions.
But still she could never escape this gut-level reaction: this darn well hurts.
As an author who can agonise for years over a manuscript, I never forget what it costs. A long game of stubborn persistence, scrunched drafts, discipline and self-belief. This, I think, is why the criticism is so painful – because it seems to disregard that epic effort. But even if the book isn’t yet perfect, the glitches found in a critique are minor in quantity if you compare them with the work already done. A critique shouldn’t be seen as invalidation of your investment in the book, or an indication that you’re not fit to be in charge of it. You know you built it from many careful decisions. A critique is the final piece of help to allow you to complete that work.
(You might also like this post – Why your editor admires you. )
Question: how to stay inspired through multiple revisions
So the theme of the day was persistence. Many drafts, lots of graft, honing until your eyes cross. But how, one writer asked, do we keep hold of our vision and stay the distance?
I talked about The Undercover Soundtrack. Of course I did; you know that’s my thing. One student countered with a delightful variation. She collected album covers for inspiration, for promises of ideas and worlds and characters. Isn’t that divine?
That crossed a dream; afternoons in Camden’s Record & Tape Exchange, enthralled by the track listings of albums, though just as often, the songs couldn’t live up to my hopes. Ah well. (These do, though; from Jonsi. )
This is what we need over the long period of writing and editing. We need ways to refresh our excitement and anticipation, our belief that the book is worth persisting with until it fulfils our hopes.
(BTW, if you need handholding there’s plenty in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Or there’s my Guardian self-editing bootcamp.)
So I’ll end with two questions. How do you take criticism, deep in your heart of hearts? Have you developed coping mechanisms and what are they? And how do you keep your inspiration through multiple drafts?
Solo self-publish, seek a book deal, something in the middle? Advice for the 2016 writer
Last year I wrote a round-up of the advice I’d give on publishing options. A year on, would I say the same? In some cases yes, in some no…
The sales problem
This time last year a main concern was how indies were feeling the pinch with dwindling sales. Did we think it could get worse?
Oh but it has. There are even more books for sale. Subscription services like Kindle Unlimited are changing the way readers perceive value. Authors who don’t enrol their books seem to get less exposure in the magic Amazon algorithms.
Does that mean it might be better to hold out for a book deal? Well, there are pros and cons, and the points I wrote last year still stand.
So what of traditional publishing?
Were we hoping that traditional publishing might enter a new era of enlightenment, with transparent, fair deals and true author-publisher partnership? Well it hasn’t happened yet. Publishers are feeling the squeeze too much to be generous and forward looking, or to embrace new methods of working. Authors still have to scrabble hard to avoid the contract traps of rights grabs, reversion clauses that never revert and discount sales that don’t qualify for a proper royalty.
A traditional deal might get you kudos or help with marketing, but this is often shortlived. Unless you strike lucky, it may not be as good as you could drum up yourself. I have a traditionally published author friend whose first book series won awards. His second series launched recently, and the only publicity was a tiny mention in the Sunday Times.
With a traditional deal, you’ll get editorial services (of course). But a lot of corners are being cut. Publishers are slimming their departments and farming the work out to freelances. Or maybe they’re not even doing that. Over Christmas I was talking to an editor friend who this year proof-read a batch of books for paperback release. They were already out in hardback, so this was supposed to be a just-in-case read. In book after book, she found appalling errors – inane grammar, impenetrable sentences, stupid inaccuracies and plot improbabilities. These weren’t unpublished manuscripts, remember; they were books that had been through the process.
I do, of course, know several authors who are happy with their publishers. All of them have one thing in common; without exception, they never tried self-publishing.
I’ve only just realised this as I write and it’s quite startling.
Let’s examine the comparison from other angles. I also know several authors who self-published first, then got book deals – and felt they were much better off as indies. Some of them halted the process, gave back the advance, and reassembled their indie publishing team. That’s still not looking good for traditional publishing. Let’s try to give it a better crack: I know several traditionally published authors who ventured into self-publishing … and decided they were happier without the extra burden.
Let’s examine that.
Ultimately: what do you want?
‘I want an old-style publishing deal because I just want to write…’
It’s probably unfashionable to say this, but many authors still hope for the old-style deal. There is undeniable satisfaction in having a book accepted. Also, you don’t have to learn the mysterious processes necessary to produce a book. And as for marketing…..
Hold it there. Whether you get a book deal or not, you will have to be your book’s ambassador. Always. Indeed, if your book is a serious contender for a publisher’s list, one of the things you’ll be judged on is your online reach. If you haven’t built one, you’ll be urged to start. The publishing deal will not let you ‘just write in peace’. You have to be a marketer as well as a writer, no matter which path you choose. The part that you can offload, if you wish, is the book production. Does this illuminate where the traditional publisher’s guaranteed contribution is?
‘I want top production values, with as much or as little control as I choose…’
It’s never been so easy to hire top production skills. And if you haven’t gathered your own team of professionals, assisted self-publishing is now a good option. In the past, many operators have been rogues, taking advantage of the inexperienced and starry eyed with overpriced and substandard services, sneaky rights grabs and unsuitable marketing efforts. (See here for a post about spotting unscrupulous publishing ‘deal’s and other scams. ) Some of them are still stinkers. But in 2015 I began to notice genuine contenders. These are like plugging your book into a well-run production department, with sales teams who’ll give you a fair crack in the bookshops. Some of them have a quality bar, so they’re halfway between a curated imprint and a self-publishing service. Qualifying for their list means you get that stamp of approval. (I’m building a list of assisted self-publishers I’d recommend, so contact me and I’ll introduce you to some good folks.)
But producing the book is just the start. The problem is getting noticed and building a readership. This is why it’s such a gamble to make a business out of an art, because no one can predict what will be successful. Thought of like that, it’s not surprising that traditional publishers try to keep so much and spend so little. It’s not evil; it’s survival. Perhaps the new, sustainable way to publish will be assisted self-publishing outfits who are choosy about the books they accept, who will build a reputation for their taste and let the writer take the financial risk. Endorsement may prove to be the magic dust that money can’t buy – even if authors foot the bill. Agent-assisted self-publishing looks attractive for that reason too, even though it makes industry purists blanch. (Just so I can say ‘I told you so’, here’s a post I wrote about agent-assisted self-publishing in 2011 )
Thanks for the dancer pic Lisa Campbell, and the handshake pic Liquene,
As ever, I throw the floor open to you. What are your publishing plans for 2016? Have your views changed from last year? Are you a self-publisher who’s had a traditional deal and what are your experiences comparing the two? If it’s not too late for resolutions, dare I ask if there are any you’d like to share?
The slow-burn writer … What takes literary authors so long?
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.)
This is on my mind after Joanna Penn’s recent podcast interview with Russell Blake, where they discussed techniques for rapid writing. As card-carrying speed demons, they had a chuckle about literary writers who take their time.
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.
Or that’s my theory. What say you?
Voice of experience: 5 things that established authors would tell new writers
A few weeks ago, a bunch of authors gathered for Books Are My Bag day at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey. Inevitably, some customers asked for advice on writing and publishing. These were the five MFDs (most frequent discussions).
1 You are not alone.
This realisation marked an important threshold. The moment we all found other writers, online or in real-life groups, was like opening a secret door to home. For me, it was a revelation to be among people who treated writing as a routine part of life. Before then, I had a hoard of notebooks with scattered fragments, but couldn’t see a next step. Trying a book seemed a bit improbable, indeed ridiculous. After all, what would I do with it? Meeting other writers made it possible. Within a few months, I was sending short stories to magazines and searching for a grand idea that deserved to be a novel.
I saw this pattern repeated with other writer friends, especially when they began new relationships. Within a few months, the new partner would start writing. The baton was being passed. For some, it was a passing phase; for others, the start of a lifelong habit. And this makes me wonder – how many of us are looking for someone to show the way?
One writer said that three of her five novels were started from dreams. In one case, she dreamed the entire first chapter, complete with the character’s voice.
Most of us don’t find our dreams are so directly usable. Also, the self-indulgent dream sequence is high on most editors’ hate-lists.
But you can use dreams as prompts, or primers for another way of thinking. I recently found a dream diary from years ago, and expected it to be twaddle. The events were mostly nonsense, but each account had an underlying quality of significance and gut-level logic. Sometimes it’s worth connecting with that if we’re stuck, or unsure which way to take a story. We might find it helpful to open up a more poetic way of thinking, and put aside the literal.
3 Accept that you might have to park a project.
Many of the authors said this was a rite of passage. Although we strive through many rough drafts to complete a book, sometimes we simply can’t make an idea work. Perhaps we need to get older, wiser, more skilled at writing. It’s a mark of maturity to recognise that you can put a piece aside and start on something else. The missing piece might arrive out of the blue, but if it doesn’t, the book was a learning experience.
4 Don’t give up the day job.
One author in our group said: ‘Advances are tiny these days and hardly anyone gets enough royalties or PLR (payments from libraries) to live on. If you give up the day job you’ll have to tour 24/7 doing workshops in schools and every festival on the planet.’
Hands up: who imagined that if they got a publishing deal they’d be ditching the nine-to-five? It hardly ever happens. And festivals/workshops aren’t a reliable source of income, even if you have the energy to do them (and when will you get time to write?). Unless you set out with a business plan as well as a creativity plan – and some writers do, especially indies – your other life will be paying for your authorly life.
5 Separate your publishing achievements from your writing achievements.
Publishing is the ecosystem we’re involved in. Sometimes we’ll fare well, and sometimes we won’t – even if we’ve done everything right. Publishers might reject us or drop us. Marketing departments will decide we’re not worth publishing. Whether we’re traditionally published or indie, our books might not sell, despite the most astute campaigns. Amazon might change its algorithms or invent a new incentive that steals away all our readers. We don’t have any control over this. But we do have control over our craft. Writing – the reward of making good books and satisfying our own standards – is where we should put our pride.
Thanks, Leo Hartas, for the eyes and brain pic – which is from Husband Dave’s graphic novel Mirabilis, Year of Wonders
As we reel into December, how’s 2015 been for your writing and publishing endeavours? Is there something you’ve learned that you would pass onto a new writer? Perhaps this was the first year you made a serious go of writing, or put significant mileage into a manuscript, or hit your goals, or did something you wouldn’t have imagined was likely or possible. Leave a comment – and forgive me if I’m a little slow replying. I’m away this week with sporadic internet access.