Posts Tagged writing

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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Three diagrams to make your plot a page-turner

Nail Your Novel unexpected plot developmentsI’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.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 001

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.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 003

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.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 002

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.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 004

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!

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Keep the faith: a mindset to put criticism in perspective… and a tip to stay inspired through multiple revisions

guardKeep the faith Nail Your NovelThe 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?

Most beautiful album covers Nail Your Novel

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. )

Jonsi Nail Your Novel

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.

nyn1 reboot ebook bigger(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?

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Solo self-publish, seek a book deal, something in the middle? Advice for the 2016 writer

2016Last 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?

Nail Your Novel how to spot scam publishing offers‘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.)

Nail Your Novel - should literary agents publishGetting noticed

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?

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The slow-burn writer … What takes literary authors so long?

Nail Your Novel literaryYou 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?

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Voice of experience: 5 things that established authors would tell new writers

Advice for the new writer Nail Your NovelA 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?

How to have ideas: Your brain, mushroom moments – and why boring tasks are good for your writing2 Write down your dreams.

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.

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Real opportunity for indie authors who seek translators and foreign language editions

Place_des_ecritures_FigeacTranslated editions can be a great way to reach a wider audience. But they’re expensive and risky to fund yourself. A translator has to reinterpret and rewrite your book, and that level of expertise isn’t cheap.

Sharks and scammers abound, especially as it’s hard to evaluate the results. Then how do you get the translated edition proof read? How do you market in a language you don’t speak?

For years I’ve been exploring options to get my books translated but so far I’ve had false starts. I’ll share a few cautionary tales below. But the reason I’m writing this post is because Amazon Publishing has opened up an important new opportunity. Its imprint AmazonCrossing, which publishes works in translation, has announced it’s seeking submissions from rightsholders, including indie authors (apply here).

This would be a publishing deal, of course, so much depends on whether you’re a good fit for their market as they would be making a substantial investment. But I feel it’s a significant opportunity. Here’s why.

Indie translation options

Paying a translator

A quick question on Twitter produced the following figures. London literary agent Charlotte Seymour

Harvill Secker senior editor Alison Hennessey concurred

Those are hefty sums. There are no guarantees of sales afterwards. And how do you recognise whether the translation is worth the price? I googled ‘bad translations’ and found no shortage of horror stories and warnings, such as this site.

Author-translator partnerships

Several authors I know have formed partnerships to produce books. This requires trust and a long-term view, but can work if you know the right person. Joanna Penn is one pioneer here, with several experiences to share.

Agents

If you are signed with a literary agent, it’s worth having a conversation about your self-published titles to see if there are any markets worth approaching.

Here’s a beware, though. A few years ago, an author friend made a translation deal, through an agent who specialised in representing indie work to foreign markets. Hurrah, I thought, and contacted her. I received an offer – only it wasn’t. It was an invitation to pay for a spot in one of her ‘catalogues’ of indie books, which she would take around the trade fairs. There were several price tiers as well, with bronze, silver and gold service, according to how much effort she would put into sales. No thanks.

Babelcube

Babelcube is a community where authors can meet translators. You complete a profile describing your book, including a sample for translators to use as an audition, and wait to see who’s interested – like a dating site. What’s more, they provide the author-translator agreement and distribute to online retailers.

It seems like a smart answer to the problem, although you still have to find the foreign-language proofreading professionals. But some indie authors have been very happy with their Babelcube experience.

So I tried offering Nail Your Novel. Plenty of translators had a go at the sample, and I amassed a group of Facebook friends with good enough language skills to evaluate the results. Their responses were an eye opener.

Some of the applicants had made the kind of mistakes that commonly happened with Google Translate. Was that, indeed, what they were doing, running my book through an algorithm? Others had made accurate translations, but were too literal, or muddled up their tenses, or lacked the flair and positive spirit of the original book. Many of them had solid CVs, but were probably most competent in technical translation – not the kind of work where much of the message was in the writing voice. I withdrew Nail Your Novel from Babelcube.

And here I am

So you can probably see why I’m excited about AmazonCrossing (if you’re still unconvinced, here’s a post by Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed ). At the moment they’re seeking fiction, so I’ve sent my two novels . Here’s the submissions link again . I’m guessing they will have a hurricane of entries, and many of us won’t be a good fit. So I’m sending my novels – with everything crossed.

Meanwhile, have you had any adventures, good or bad, with translations? Any tips or advice? Share them here

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots – do you have a plot or a premise?

guardThis is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.

Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.

Is it a premise or a plot?

plot or premiseA writer in my class told us she’d had a literary agent, who had said: ‘Your problem is that you have a premise but not a plot.’

So what might that mean?

A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)

Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.

So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.

Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.

Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.

Still life
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.

And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.

So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.

The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.

So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.

More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
ebookcovernyn3In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.

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The Masque of the Red Death discussed at Literary Roadhouse – podcast for literature lovers

Roz Morris red death 003 smlIf you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ll already have seen this picture. Years ago I held a fancy dress party with the theme ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. My costume was The Masque of the Red Death, after the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Well this week, I was the guest of The Literary Roadhouse podcast, an online discussion group for short stories. Each week they choose a literary short story and gnaw over it for a good hour. If you want a conversation that cares about a story’s language, themes, resonances and whether it works, this is for you.

Even better, you can take part. Read the story before you listen, and you can tell them afterwards in the comments what you agree and disagree about. Indeed, they’d love it if you did.

So, to explain the splendid party picture you see here. Literary Roadhouse pick the stories by a random and bizarre game. I have only once in my life dressed up as a short story, and the hand of fate took it to Literary Roadhouse for my guest litroadspot. Spooky. Hop over there now. If you dare.

Extremely serious question. If you had to dress as a short story, or ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, what would your costume be? You don’t do that sort of thing? Just me, then.

 

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Lessons learned from making a contemporary fiction box set – guest post at Jane Friedman

janefboxsetWomen-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlHow do you organise seven time-strapped authors to collaborate on a project? Who does what, especially the tedious jobs like proof reading? How do you decide on an image, a price,  a name, a thrust for the publicity campaign, how much to spend on advertising?

Indeed, how do you get seven individuals to agree on anything?

How do you get the attention of the press – and is that worthwhile? What’s the difference between a proper promotion strategy and flinging the book into the market to fend for itself?

As you know, I’ve been taking part in a box set release with six other authors. We started work, in secret, back in November. Now, Jane Friedman has grilled us about the lessons learned in making a nice notion into an actual live product. Do come over.

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