Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Guest Post: Chris Hill sings the Song of the Sea God

Today we have another guest writer on 52 Ways To Write A Novel - Chris Hill, author of SONG OF THE SEA GOD and THE PICK-UP ARTIST.

Lovely to have you here, Chris. 

First off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Thanks for having me along today, Jane, it’s a real pleasure to be here! I live in Gloucestershire and I’m married with two towering teenage sons and a Cockerpoo called Murphy. I spent a lot of years as a journalist working on regional newspapers in the UK - I started as a reporter and finished as an editor. Now I work in PR for a children’s charity called WellChild who provide nurses for seriously ill children so they can be cared for in the family home rather than hospital. I’ve always written fiction, I started with short stories and improved over time, winning a few awards including the Bridport Prize. Later, I progressed to writing novels.

What are your ambitions for your writing career and which writers inspire you? 
I’d like to write a book I feel entirely proud of, something I think is the best thing I could possibly write. I doubt it will ever happen. Most things I write I just try to make the least bad they can be. My books are all different from each other, which I know makes no sense commercially but it pleases me. All authors inspire me - all of them, good ones, bad ones, self-published, small press, big publisher. I think writing books and stories is a tremendous thing for people to be doing, we hold a mirror up to society, we are its conscience and its soul. That’s no small thing to be involved in.

What have you written and/or are writing at the moment?
I’ve had two books published so far. Song of the Sea God (Skylight Press 2012) which is literary fiction, a kind of creepy fairytale about a man who comes to a small island off the coast of Northern England and convinces the locals he is a god. And The Pick-Up Artist (Magic Oxygen Publishing 2015) which is an off-beat rom com about a young man’s hopeless attempts to find love with the help of  PUA movement who claim to be able to use psychological techniques to attract the opposite sex.
I have another one done, a crime novel based on my years as a reporter. It’s sitting in a drawer waiting for me to dust it off and find a publisher. There’s also a short story collection I’d like to find a home for. And I’m currently working on a new novel which feels like it’s going to be a sort of thriller. Most of what I write can be appended with the word ‘quirky’ for which I feel equally cursed and blessed.

How much research do you do?
It depends on the book I think. For Song of the Sea God I had to do all sorts of reading around ancient myths and religions, for The Pick-Up Artist I learned about the rather murky world of the PUA movement. For the crime book I’d lived it as a crime reporter over a number of years but I did a fair bit of fact checking on technical details.

When did you decide to become a writer, and why do you write? 
I’ve been writing fiction pretty much since I learned to write I suppose. Scraps at first in notebooks, then proper stories and later novels. I don’t know why I write except I feel compelled to. I don’t necessarily enjoy it that much, it can be a chore, though I do feel better during periods when I am doing it. Less fidgety, more at peace with myself.

Do you write full-time or part-time?
I’ve always worked full time and I have a family so I’m one of those people who write around the day. That’s probably one reason why it takes me so long to finish anything. I quite like it this way though, I don’t think I’d change it even if I could. 

Do you have a special time of day when you like to write or a special place where you feel most creative or hard-working?
I carry a notebook around in my man-bag and scribble in it in all sorts of places - on the bus often. But I also need to sit down in front of the laptop in the evening a few times a week and work in that more organised and focussed manner.

Are you a plotter? Do you tend to work to an outline or synopsis, or are you a 'pantser', someone you prefers to see where an idea takes you?
I have a kind of middle way. I do some planning at the outset and more as I go along. I like to know where I am going to end up from the start but I don’t have a complete roadmap of the entire journey. We all find our own way of working of course but for me this feels like having my cake and eating it.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It takes me about two years in all, one for the first draft, one for rewrites, and I procrastinate a lot before I even get started. I don’t suppose I will ever be particularly prolific!

Do you ever get writer’s block?
Not as such, though I do take a long time to get started and then a long time to write anything to the level where I am satisfied with it. I do envy writers who talk about having crashed out a book in just a few months.

Ha, I'd better not rub it in then that I wrote my last 100,000 word novel in 9 weeks. Do you read much - I know I find it hard to make time for reading these days - and if so who are your favourite authors? Is your drug of choice fiction or non-fiction? Any particular kind?
I’m always reading, I don’t think I could trust a writer who didn’t read. It’s mostly fiction though I go through non-fiction periods too. I read literary fiction mostly but I have read books in most genres too I suppose, over time. My first love was the work of the American novelists of the last half of the 20th century - now recently deceased. People like Updike, Heller, Vonnegut, Bellow. They combined fabulous writing, great narrative voices and amazing plots and characters. But since then I’ve spread my interests fairly widely.

For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or 'proper' books? (Personally, I love an improper book.)
It’s dead trees all the way for me. I do have a Kindle and have read books on it but for all kinds of reasons: emotional, physical, nostalgic, sensory, I prefer a book made of paper. There was a report recently in the media about the decline in ebooks and the resurgence of print ones. I’m sure there’s room for both but I don’t see print disappearing when it comes to books. Newspapers are a different matter. 

What are you reading at present?
The last three books I’ve read have been A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and I’m half way through American Gods by Neil Gaiman. All wonderful books in their own way and an eclectic selection as always.

Tell us about your book covers and how they came about, and do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process? 
I suppose it must be important though personally I don’t think I have ever bought a book because of the cover. I work with my publishers on them. Small press publishers tend to be quite collaborative so I’ve enjoyed the process. We’ve discussed ideas, I’ve shown them covers I like and so on. With Song of the Sea God I even gave them photos I liked which were taken by a friend of mine on Walney Island where the book is set, and one of those ended up on the cover.

How do you market your books, and do you have any advice for other authors on how to market their books?
I do PR and marketing for my day job so it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday for me, that side of things. I enjoy social media and blogging. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet; awareness grows over time. At my last book launch, my eldest son was with me. After about the fifth person had come up to me like an old friend because they knew me online, my lad said: “Wow dad, you might not be famous, but you are Twitter famous.”

What part of your writing time do you devote to marketing your book, and is there any marketing technique you've personally used that had a strong impact on your sales figures? (We all want to know this!)
I’m doing less at the moment as I’m between books - I get on it a lot more when I have a new one out but I always try to be classy and not bang people over the head with my ‘product’. That’s a big turnoff for all of us, isn’t it? I don’t think you can beat physically standing in front of people at events and talking to readers. I do that when I can.

I quite enjoy clouting people over the head with my books. Thanks for coming along to chat to us today, Chris. How can readers discover more about you and your work?

My website

Facebook

Twitter

Song of the Sea God

The Pick-Up Artist

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Guest Post: Su Bristow on the writing of SEALSKIN


This week, novelist Su Bristow shares with us the mechanics and mystery behind the writing of her debut novel, SEALSKIN.

What happens when magic collides with reality?
Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous ... and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives - not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?
Based on the legend of the selkies - seals who can transform into people - Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable.

Su Bristow: Hi Jane, and thank you for the invitation to write a guest post for 52 Ways To Write A Novel.

My debut novel, Sealskin, came out in February this year, published by Orenda Books. Does that qualify me to talk about how to write a novel? Of course not! All I can do is tell you how I wrote this one. The process will certainly be different next time; for a start, Sealskin took years to write. I don’t think I’ll ever match your speed, but it won’t take quite so long the second time around. I’ve learned – I hope! – a thing or two along the way.

But I do have a day job, so writing happens when other things don’t. And a lot of the process, for me at least, happens when I’m not sitting at the computer. Bits of plot fall into place, characters develop, and whole passages of dialogue unroll themselves while I’m walking, or gardening, or driving; anything that doesn’t need full concentration. The actual word count doesn’t tell anything like the whole story.

That’s true for most people who write, of course, but I gather it’s quite unusual not to have blizzards of post-it notes around your desk, or time-line diagrams, lists of characters and so forth. All of that was inside my head until I actually came to write it down. Is it more or less efficient that way? Well, I did try writing notes now and then, but I never looked at them again, so they were pretty much redundant.

Author of SEALSKIN: Su Bristow

However, Sealskin is a retelling of a legend, so the basic structure of the story was already there. I knew how it started and how it ended; my job was to colour in the picture, add some twists and turns, and make sense of the huge moral anomaly at the heart of the story. For those who haven’t come across it before, the story comes from the west coast of Scotland, and it tells how a young fisherman witnessed a marvel one moonlit night: nine seals came ashore, took off their skins and became young women, dancing naked on the beach. He hid one of the skins, so that one of the selkies – as they are called – could not go back to the sea, and he ‘took her home to be his wife’.

And there’s the problem. Is this really a sweet, sad, romantic tale? It’s usually told that way, but the selkie woman has no choice, and certainly does not consent. She mourns for her lost life, and when the chance comes to return to the sea, she does not hesitate, even though, by then, she has human children whom she has to leave behind. As a younger woman, I might have told it as another example of how women can be used by men, tricked into servitude for sex, domestic labour and childbearing. But these days I’m more interested in how people find their way through the traumas that life deals out, and how getting it wrong at first can teach us, if we’re willing, how to get it right for ourselves and for others. After all, I’ve spent most of my working life helping people to do just that.

So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of Donald, the young fisherman. How did he come to do this dreadful thing? And if he came to regret it and tried to make amends, how would that work? I told it in deep third, so that we are always inside his head.  That was partly because Donald himself – at least at first – has trouble seeing things from other people’s point of view, but also because I wanted to follow his emotional and spiritual journey as he slowly, painfully, begins to grow up through his love for Mairhi and his desire to atone for his crime. There is no omniscient narrator: we see the way people change through Donald’s own eyes, and through what they say and what they do. And as Mairhi herself never speaks – or at least not in words – we have only her actions to give us clues to her inner life. Like Donald, we have to learn to interpret what we see and experience. Showing, not telling, was definitely the name of the game.

I won’t say too much about the twists and sub-plots in the novel, for those who haven’t read it yet. But as I arranged it into the short chapters that some people have commented on, I had in mind the action of waves on the shore: most of them small, only changing things a little, and from time to time a bigger, more dramatic one, that leaves the landscape different and sometimes almost unrecognisable. Each wave brings something, and takes something away. Land and sea are joined in an eternal dance. They can’t be united, but there is mutual dependence. That’s one of the major themes of Sealskin, played out through all of the characters in the book.

Thanks for those insights, Su! 

I very much enjoyed reading Sealskin, and can see why it has capitvated so many readers. 

Don't get concerned about your way of working though. Some novels I've written have required complex timelines on whiteboards - mostly multiple point-of-view historicals - while other novels, like the psychological thriller I finished writing today, had nothing down on paper except a 2-page synopsis from which I strayed quite far at times. The notes happened in my head. 

So it may be down to the book in hand. Not necessarily a process we choose, or one which is good or bad, or more problematic than any other, for instance, but a response to the task we set ourselves when we write the first line of a new novel.

Best of luck with your next project! - Jane

SELECTED PRAISE FOR SEALSKIN 


‘An extraordinary book: original, vivid, tender and atmospheric. Su Bristow’s writing is fluid and flawless, and this is a story so deeply immersive that you emerge at the end, gasping for air’ - Iona Grey

‘An evocative story, told with skill and beauty, that held me spellbound until the very last page’ - Amanda Jennings

Sealskin is the most exquisite tale of love, forgiveness and magic. Inspired by the legends of the selkies, this gorgeous novel is a dark fairy tale, an ode to traditional storytelling, a tribute to the stories we loved hearing as children. But be warned – this is no happy-ever-after tale. The language is just glorious, poetic and rich but precise. And her characters – oh, they will remain in your heart long after you’ve closed the last page. Mairhi – especially since she never really “speaks” – is a beautiful mystery, but one who haunted me when I was between chapters. If this is her first, then I can’t wait to read whatever Su Bristow bestows upon the literary world next’ - Louise Beech


Buy Sealsin on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sealskin-Su-Bristow-ebook/dp/B01MSUB9W6


 
   

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Week Thirty-Nine: Pitching Novels at the London Book Fair

So this week was the London Book Fair at Olympia, Kensington. I went along, as I usually do these days, met my agent, talked to my editors, went to several parties, chatted with fellow authors and a few publishers I may work with in future. And now my feet are throbbing and I'm laid up in bed with post-Fair flu.

But it was all worth it. Honest.

London Book Fair 2017

At the LBF, you will find thousands of publishers, editors, agents, and yes, even authors, from all over the world, and all under one roof for three days of buzz and excitement about books. Plus associated book-trade businesses and bodies, including bigger names like the Society of Authors, the Bookseller, etc. Then there's the Ivy Club, which hosts a special pop-up for the fair, with individual booths boasting luxurious leather sofas and armchairs, where all the top London agents do their deals. (Including my own agent, of course, dahling!)

All the fun of the fair, in other words, in one massive exhibition hall with free books and handouts on almost every corner!

Never traditionally an author-friendly event, the LBF has become increasingly more open to authors in recent years. There is the large Author HQ hub, for starters, an entire corner of the fair devoted to all things author. Amazon's KDP self-publishing company seems to sponsor much of this activity, and their team will happily talk to anyone who strolls up and asks about self or indie publishing. At Author HQ, you can hear writers talking to a large audience about their self-publishing successes, or even editors and agents disclosing what they're currently looking for ('A great story with strong characters,' is invariably the unhelpful answer). There's another area at the fair dedicated to children's publishing too, with talks that go on all day, also featuring writers and editors etc.

As an unpublished author, or if you're looking for representation, you can pitch to individual agents - possibly editors too - in the Author Hub if you book up a pitch slot well in advance. There's more about this on the London Book Fair website.

There are frequent launches and even publisher parties that sometimes allow you to drift in univited, especially if it's a smaller indie publisher. See what's on at the LBF website or look out for 'party here 6pm' notices. You can also hook up with fellow authors for a chat about trends and, ahem, any new gossip. Some of them may even stand you a coffee ... Thanks, Alison!

I often meet up with fabulous author Alison Morton at LBF for a good old book natter. This year we shared a table and a chat with John Jackson too, who's just landed a contract with Crooked Cat Books. Thanks to Anita Chapman for the pic!

If you're already published, and/or represented, the fair is a great place to meet your editor(s) and agent, and discuss the year before and the year ahead. You should ask them for a meeting slot a couple of months before the fair - which is an early spring event, usually April, though it was in March this year, which everyone agreed gave it a very different, slightly under-prepared feel.

NB
Everything I am about to say is my individual opinion, based on my own experience, which is fairly considerable but limited to certain areas of publishing. It's not gospel. Caveat lector.

Prepare well for this meeting. You may only get ten minutes, or up to half an hour if you're lucky, to pitch possibly several projects in a convincing manner. Wednesday is a good day for an appointment. Tuesday, everyone is getting settled in. Thursday, everyone is tired, especially by the afternoon, and may already be thinking about heading home, rather than listening to your pitch.

Don't over-dress for the occasion. You're not going for a modelling job or to seduce (not physically, anyway). But do wear something clean and smart-casual.

Writers can get away with a scruffy look as 'creatives' but generally only if they're men. Sexist, I know, but you could reduce your chances of a sale if you turn up looking like a bag lady. I rarely wear make-up but always slap some on for the LBF. I also dye my hair to remove a few grey hairs - only a few though, honest. I'm still practically a teenager. This year I wore black leggings and a black top on the first day - pretty low-key - but coupled it with a new suede jacket and a glitzy necklace. To meet my agent and editors at the Ivy Club, I wore black boots and a bright, slightly kookie, knee-length skirt with again, a plain black top.

Slightly crazed, but not actively terrifying. One hopes.

Dressing like you belong in an industry is the first step to getting into it. So while it may feel a bit superficial, do consider your look and what it says about you. And never drench yourself in perfume or body spray beforehand. It can make people uncomfortable and they'll soon want you to go away!

For the pitch itself, much will depend on your relationship with the person you're pitching to, and also your track record. Old hands in a longterm relationship with an agent/editor may be able to get away with very little by way of a pitch ('It's a Christmas romcom,' was one of my briefest pitches this year, which got a nod) while if you're newer to the business, or transitioning from one genre/publisher to another, you will almost certainly need to go into greater detail.

In some cases, the discussion may even become thorny and require delicate navigation to avoid looking like a total noob. Be prepared to answer difficult (often unanswerable, in my opinion) questions like, 'Who do you see as the readership for that book?' or 'What's its USP?' (Unique Selling Point).

This is my latest book: a domestic noir psychological thriller, in a nutshell. (Not literally in a nutshell. That would be weird.) 

Avoid answering, 'Blimey, I dunno,' to the first (even though it's probably an honest response) as you need to at least pretend to have considered such a question. 'Young professionals' would be better, or even something tighter like 'college-educated women between 18 and 60.' For the USP, if you're at a total loss, you could always try something equally buzzwordy, like 'Oh, it's a high concept premise.' Naturally, this won't wash well if it's, for instance, a gentle romantic novel where nothing unexpected happens.

So think about USP and readerships and longterm strategies and market placement (where your book might fit alongside other similar books) and also author branding. But don't get fixated on them. The story is still everything.

Author branding is where the publisher puts you in a box, composed neatly of whatever novels you normally write, and heaven help you if you decide you want to make a hole in that box later, escape and write something different. Branding will suit some writers better than others. But publishers do love branding their authors - ouch! - and if you can approach a hungry-for-series editor with a new series/brand idea that fits the current market, especially if it has a high concept USP, you're almost certain to get a yes.

For an example of a brilliantly constructed author brand, look at Alison Morton's 6-book Roma Nova series, starting with INCEPTIO.


Almost certain. Not a guarantee. Because there are no guarantees anymore. Not even with so-called 'safe' books that seem to fit the market perfectly.

In these troubled economic times, with the book trade shifting constantly under our feet, book people have become nervous types who want to hang onto their jobs. If your great new idea makes a loss, they're the first ones to suffer. So they're always looking for sure ground, for safe choices, for reasons to say no. Not reasons to say yes. Go into every pitch meeting with that caveat in mind.

Prepare, but don't look over-prepared. Don't clutch a synopsis sheet in your sweaty fist - or worse, a laminated sheet or something in a protective plastic wallet - and stare down at it while stammering out the printed words. Be relaxed, be natural, take a breath. Smile.

In film and television, pitching is a thirty-second art at entry level: fast, slick and honed. Bang, bang, bang ... and out. Things are gradually moving in that direction in fiction land too, but we're not there yet, thank goodness. Old habits die hard. Novelists pitching to agents and editors may not bother with much small talk anymore, under sheer pressure of time, but 'Hello, how are you?' for instance, is still incorporated into most pitching strategies.

For your actual pitch, first know the market as well as any author possibly can. As above, 'It's a Christmas romcom,' pins an idea down to a niche genre and even a seasonal market. Perfect. Details come only after you've laid that groundwork in the listener's head. If you've done good research, you might even suggest a publisher. 'It's a dwarves and sorcerers epic; Tor might be interested.'

If it's literary fiction, look confident and pitch that as a genre. 'It's commercial lit fic' won't necessarily turn them off (even if it's not likely to be commercial, pretend that it is and hope they accept that at face value; honesty is not always the best policy when pitching!). Some big lit fic books can make massive sales these days, especially if they are issue-based. Everyone loves a big issue they can get weepy over. (Not me personally. But then, I'm 'ard as nails.) All the same, your chances of a yes to lit fic will improve if you can throw some recent bestselling buzz-names in there: 'It's on similar ground to Jessie Burton/Joanna Cannon/Emma Healey' should make their ears prick up. Note the recent bit. Everything has to be new, new, new in publishing. Don't tell them it's like a Catherine Cookson novel, or they'll already be looking over your shoulder at the next person in the queue.

Be as specific as possible. 'It's a Christmas animal fiction feel-good novel for adults ...'

Once you have their attention with some firm market placement, pitch the story itself, starting with character. Character is vital to a pitch. Total lack of a plot will get you a no almost every time, of course. But if your character sounds intriguing, an interested agent/editor may try to help you improve the plot rather than give a flat no to a character description that's hooked them.

Beware of too much detail though. Details will bog you down and you'll lose sight of that USP.

'It's about this mother who ...' (Try to be emotive with your nouns: 'mother' or 'wife' will work better than 'It's about this woman.' I know, I know, what can I say?) Work in two or three key characters, quick as possible, and then tell the listener why they should care about them. Jobs can be useful shortcuts to building a character if all else fails. 'It's about this mother/wife/zoo keeper's assistant who's dying of [incurable disease/condition] and she wants someone to [look after her elephants etc.] when she's gone.'

Pressure is always a good way to make a pitch sound saleable. Unity of time, as Aristotle knew, gives even a mediocre plot that extra edge. 'There's this astronaut stranded on Jupiter and he only has fifteen hours to save all of mankind.' Make sure you turn the screw hard though. 'Unfortunately, he has to sacrifice his wife and baby son in order to save the world.' Who could resist that?

Which brings me to my next caveat.

Make sure you're pitching the right story to the right person. The editor who wants the Christmas romcom is unlikely to want the Jupiter astronaut story. An easy-going agent might take both, but most agents will be looking to steer you down a branded path if possible. One or two related genres only. Be aware of that when going in with five different book pitches all in different genres. You could look like a no-hoper without realising it.

'If this Western pitch doesn't work out, maybe they'll like my idea for a sci fi 7-book series set inside a black hole. Or my paranormal trilogy set in Basingstoke.'

Especially when approaching an agent for the first time, try to look like you work in one discrete area by only preparing pitches that fit that genre. Romance OR historicals OR crime, or subsets of these. Not all of them. At least for now. You can bamboozle them with something different once you've hooked them. Alternatively, if an agent says at the end, 'Is there anything else you'd like to write/you're working on?' that could be a signal they like you as a person/writer, but not the genre or ideas you've been pitching. Then you could say, 'Actually, yes, I'm also interested in giant alien bug attacks.'

Despite all these games and ploys, the best book pitches are natural and fit organically into the flow of the discussion. They should come across as more a conversation than a pitch, an easy give-and-take. Tell the story of the book, if you like, but keep it short and animated. If they interrupt a pitch to ask questions, so much the better. Don't answer briefly, with impatience, and then go doggedly back to your pitch. Let the pitch develop into an organic conversation. If their eyes glaze over at any point, move on quickly to your next idea.

And make sure you have a second idea. And a third, and even a fourth, if necessary. You may only need - or have time - to pitch one. So make it your best idea, the one you've prepared most for. But don't be surprised if they prefer the final, slightly desperate pitch you pull out of thin air at the last second, maybe something you thought up on the way to the meeting or that fell out of your mouth unexpectedly when you started talking.

The Borough Book Bash, held every month, is a London pub-based event open to anyone interested in publishing. Great place to network after LBF with up-and-coming editors and book folk, and also to get new Twitter followers, ahem!

Book people like pitching authors to be prepared and in control of their material. But they love raw. They love passion and edge and sheer buzz. They're always looking for that new thing, that big thing, that shimmering book just out of sight ...

So make sure you keep at least one back-up, half-formed, slightly crazy idea in your noddle. Not on paper, never on paper. And whizz that idea out if you think it's gone badly, and the agent is politely opening their mouth to say, 'Well, it was lovely to meet you ...'

If things go well, you may not need that crazy back-up idea. But it's there, just in case.
 
Most importantly, if pitching to someone you may work with over a number of years, make sure you can get on with that person. Hard to judge in a ten minute meeting, I know. But trust your gut. They'll be trusting their guts on the other side of the table. So if they say no, they may be doing both of you a favour. You need to find the person who clicks with you and your writing, so you can both make it a longterm working relationship, not a one or two-book deal.

Get an email address and hand over a card if you like, but the important thing is to make a real connection. That other stuff can come later.

Good luck!

Oh, and bring water and snacks. There are places to eat and drink at the book fair, but they're often very busy, and are also very expensive. And if you're female, watch out for those long queues for the loo, especially around lunchtime. Take something to read while you wait!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Week Thirty-Eight: On Staying Energised as a Writer

Sometimes being a writer feels like the hardest thing in the world.


'What chance have I got among all these?'

It isn't, of course.

But that doesn't mean we don't become tired, getting up in the morning and seeing either that nothing has changed or life just got a little harder than the day before.

This isn't Novel Avoidance Syndrome, though it shares symptoms with that condition.

This isn't fear of success, though others may dismiss it as such.

This isn't even fear of failure. It can strike long-established writers as much as newbies. Perhaps more so, as we no longer have that starry-eyed 'anything could happen' vision to fuel our dreams.

It's about feeling swamped in an overcrowded marketplace teeming with other talented writers. Thrown in with your heavy books to sink or swim, while publishers mostly keep their dainty toes out of the water and direct from the poolside instead.

'Backstroke now. That's the spirit. No resting!'

It's about having great ideas and not being able to act on them. Like we're all on some vast synchronised swimming team.

'I said, backstroke! Not butterfly. Same as everyone else, please.'

It's about not having the publisher that's right for you, or not having a publisher at all and having to carve out your own path as an independent. How to rise above the crowd as an indie? How to successfully promote a book on your own while not spamming people with links and alongside so many hundreds of thousands of other, possibly similar books?

It's about not being able to get reviews without crawling through mud and barbed wire for them. Or increasingly getting clusters of one star reviews, often for reasons that hurt the soul. 'Didn't download properly.' 'I hate romcoms but this one was free.' 'Haven't read it yet.'

It's about things that ought to be simple going wrong, often insanely wrong, and not feeling able to complain or say anything about it in public, in case we lose our jobs.

'Another thirty lengths, please!'

It's about approaching other writers covertly for advice, and getting the door slammed in our faces for the same reasons as above.

'Stay at the correct distance! No whispering in the ranks!'

Sometimes it seems as though all the joy and excitement and the sheer drama of writing and publishing a novel is being sucked out of the process, to be replaced by emptiness and the steady creaking of some invisible conveyor-belt.


Factory Hen Novelists

So how do we get past this feeling of being jaded or washed-up, as professional novelists? How do we recapture our enthusiasm not only powerfully enough to finish our novels, but to write bestsellers, and to keep on writing bestsellers?

Here are a few thoughts:

1. SHUT YOURSELF OFF FROM THE INTERNET

If the world out there is getting you down, if your reviews are crap or non-existent, or your ranking is in the toilet, or that wet-behind-the-ears new MA course writer gets asked for her 'expert' opinion on how-to-pen-a-novel while nobody gives a flying crap what you, veteran of dozens of bloody published novels, think about writing, if you're beginning to hate everything about this process ... try not to look up quite so often from your keyboard.

In days of yore, before the internet made us all so paranoid, novelists wrote books and had very little feedback - except for scattered reviews at publication and the occasional letter. They didn't have to worry about rankings outside the top few writers on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Publishers took much longer to dump new writers, so that fear too was less extreme.

Nowadays, you can get dumped almost as soon as your first book is out, if initial sales aren't strong enough. (They just won't tell you until you start innocently asking about your next title.) Meanwhile you still have to write. Because you're a writer and that's what you do. Because however shit things are for writers, everything else is shittier. Or words to that effect.

So if the noise and the trumpeting and the sheer BLAH of the publishing world is driving you crazy, pretend like you've been spirited back to the 1950s. Shut off from the internet and trade magazines as far as possible and do nothing but write, write, write.

Put your fingers in your ears and just write ...


2. STAY FLEXIBLE AND OPEN TO CHANGE

As writers, we need to stop making career assumptions based on what used to work in publishing or what used to be the norm for authors in our position, whatever that happens to be. The world is moving so rapidly, what is the case now may already have changed in six months, and many situations we took for granted, say, five or ten years ago, may soon look like something from the Dark Ages.

Why is this? Well, much of the current instability seems to date back to the demise of the Net Book Agreement in the mid-late 90s. It was trumpeted as a time of free marketeering, but the lack of protection over retail prices means books have gradually become cheaper while midlist authors have earned less and less every year. Add to that the rise of the ebook market, where many traditionally published bestsellers are only 99p and some indie authors can't even give away their books for free, and you have a very volatile, uncertain industry.

So there's no point trying to second guess where we're heading or to control that trajectory in any meaningful way. This means developing a flexible approach to writing. Perhaps accepting that some books will need to be self-published, perhaps under a new name, or that you may need to move from one publisher to another with little warning. Only the biggest brand names are insulated from such shifts these days, it seems to me.

Though such challenges can feel like the end of the world, they can also be liberating for writers. They can provide opportunities to learn new skills as a self-publisher or experiment with new genres in a way that might not have been possible on a traditional writing path. This freedom to experiment can reinvigorate a tired or depressed author, demonstrating that her writing career is only limited by her own ambition.

Old writer, new tricks

3. SEEK REINITIATION AS A WRITER

If all else fails, reconnect with your primary impulse to write. The excitement that drove you to become a writer in the first place, that had you rushing to your book every morning. Sounds great, huh? Reinitiation as a writer, especially when you're older and have been round the block so many times you're dizzy, is what every true creative seeks.

But how to achieve it?

Well, in my opinion, there are two key paths to reinitiation. To recapturing your original drive, inspiration and creative vision as a writer before reality painted your world grey.

For the first way, you need a muse or mentor who will act as a guide back to your creative impulse. A Virgil to your Dante, in other words. (Best to seek that muse in artistic terms though, not run off with the milkman/woman, though many great writers have restarted their creative engines through sex!) For this way, look for another writer whose work you always read with the greatest possible excitement - living or dead, either should work fine - and study them, emulate them, be inspired by them, and write with them in mind until you've regained enough momentum to trundle off on your own again. Like bump-starting a car with a dead battery!

What would Hemingway have written here?

The second way to achieve reinitiation is to do something hugely dangerous as a writer, for instance by scaring yourself into a new dynamic approach. Hugely dangerous things for a novelist include suddenly starting to write a book in a style or genre or on a topic you know nothing about and/or have never attempted before. Or changing your pseudonym and writing as that person, i.e. in a completely new way. Like being a method actor, you do everything in that new idiom until every cell of your creative being has been renewed and is stamped with this fresh style.

But don't do any of this reinitiation process secretly. Do it openly so that you burn your bridges. Tell people what you're attempting. Even boast about it. This will be so frightening, especially if you're already established in one particular genre or style, that you will hopefully end up feeling - and writing - like an entirely new author, with increased vigour and commitment.

That's the theory anyway. Good luck!

Oh, and if doing something reckless with your career, be sure not to spend your last advance too quickly. You'll need it soon enough to pay your tax bill.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Week Thirty-Seven: Six Steps To Writing A Page-Turner

This week sees the publication of my second psychological thriller, LOCK THE DOOR.



Early readers have very kindly described this new novel as 'Simply compelling' (Andy Martin, crime writing expert and critic) and 'Exhilarating ... heart-pounding' (Rachel's Random Reads) as well as variously complimenting its 'pacing', 'momentum' and 'urgency'. 

So I thought I'd write a 'how to' post on creating that all-important quality in a thriller, that of being unputdownable or a page-turner. And to keep it simple, as I could waffle on forever on this topic, I'm restricting it to six steps.

Step One - Write action/reaction-only at the planning stage

If you're not a planner, you might as well stop reading now. My advice will be lost on you, and that's fine. But for planners, the outline or synopsis is where you will make your first errors in terms in creating a page-turner. So don't plot a story that starts before the main action.

For instance, young mum Jane is sitting in her house one day when her grandmotherly neighbour knocks and asks her round for tea and fresh-baked scones. They discuss knitting, and then Jane leaves to pick up her kids from school. Later, her husband bursts in and discloses that he has just inadvertently killed their neighbour's husband and hidden him in a wheelie bin. STOP. Go back and start the story with the husband bursting in ...

Readers are sophisticated. They can join up even invisible dots! So a couple of sentences about the delicious whiff of her neighbour's excellent scones  - perhaps the unfortunate woman is seen baking them as Jane and her careless husband hurry past her house with a curiously overladen wheelie bin - would be sufficient backstory/character revelation here.

When planning, think hard about pace and impact. Don't draft in backstory. Write in blocks of action and reaction instead. Start running and keep running, in other words. Otherwise your reader may put down the book at a quiet moment and go off for a scone, and perhaps never come back.

Her husband stuffed the old man's lifeless body back inside the wheelie bin and slammed the lid shut just as the patrol car rounded the corner ...

Step Two - Use dialogue to leapfrog or break up prose description, and impart info

Prose description can be very important for setting a scene. But you need far less of it than you perhaps realise, at least if you want to write a page-turner. A whole paragraph - or three - on how lovely the sparkling sea looks in summer, and you may have just lost your place on the bestseller list. Snip it down to a sentence here, then another later on. The same applies to character description or identifying and describing a new location. Yes, you need these. But make it a few bold pencil strokes, not a leisurely watercolour.

Maybe the book is all about atmosphere and local colour though. You need those descriptions to augment the sinister feel of the physical backdrop. One way to deal with that is to interleave descriptions with bursts of dialogue. This breaks them up for the rapidly moving eye of the reader, and increases reading pace without stinting on local colour. Most writers end up doing this naturally. But sometimes you get weary and can't see how to avoid the weight of description.

If your character is alone, maybe exploring an environment or locked in a room, you can bring in a line or more of dialogue from earlier and repeat it in italics, with some reaction perhaps. That's your narrative character 'remembering' a previous conversation. A bit cheesy, maybe. But again, it can break up the paragraphs and make the pages turn faster. Or have a phone ring. 'Hello?' etc. Or a text message arrive. Anything to increase interaction.

Whatever you do, don't TELL the reader plot information in a prose paragraph. Always use dialogue to impart new plot information or discuss events if you possibly can - even if this means making them WAIT until the next chapter. (Tip: another way to keep the pages turning is to sneakily withhold vital information, or dripfeed it over a number of chapters.)

Step Three - Use short sentences in your prose. No, even shorter than that.

Verbose sentences stuffed with meandering clauses and pretentious semi-colons are strictly for literary fiction and those who feel a prize nomination coming on. You want to write popular, page-turning, mass market fiction, you have to use short, eyecatching sentences. Especially if they feel highly informal and don't involve verbs. You may even need to resort to italics (or even capital letters) on very special occasions, but I wouldn't recommend going too far down the ornate route, as that can rapidly become tiring for the reader.

Like this?

NO.

This.

Step Four - On a similar note, avoid being too formal in your phrasing

To help people turn the pages in large numbers, you need to get their confidence en masse that you can tell a story that will please, intrigue, excite and engage them. See above.

But this isn't just about the mechanics of writing shorter sentences. It's about using verbs to catapult an action off the page. It's about not being afraid to be casual in your references and phrasing. It's about using abbreviations like 'I'm' and 'can't' as the norm, not simply in dialogue but within prose paragraphs too.

The majority of your readers are also television watchers and film-goers. They tweet and share on Facebook. They text each other in informal ways. They communicate via email, both at home and work. You need to sound like you're one of them. Or they'll reject you. 

'Cup of tea, love?' Mrs Crumbles asked the intruder as he lumbered towards her tea trolley, swinging a blood-stained axe ... She always had been a little shortsighted.

Step Five - Keep Your Main Characters In Crisis

Characters that are not in a state of crisis can be lovely. But they're not always terribly engaging for readers, especially if you're aiming for suspense. In real terms, this means making sure there are no scenes in your novel that do not need to be there in order to advance the story in some quantifiable way. No aimless, character development chats over tea. See step one above.

Or incorporate the chats, if you must, but squeeze them in alongside plot developments. Have the chat in a car screaming at top speed toward a developing crime scene. Have the chat with one character dangling another character out of a window.

Okay, I'm pushing the envelope here. But seriously, check that scene is required. Otherwise you run the risk of boring the reader.

Step Six - Keep Asking Questions

A book needs to ask a question that will intrigue the reader enough to keep reading. This can - and probably should! - happen from as early as the first sentence, or at least paragraph. I don't mean it has to be a literal question. Sometimes an intriguing first line will ask a question simply by virtue of an intriguing premise or implied backstory. 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.' (I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith) Why on earth the kitchen sink? Wouldn't a desk or chair be more comfortable? So immediately you're asking questions about what kind of narrator would kick off their story in such an informal way, and yet in a curiously formal, almost stylised manner. Themes or ideas can ask questions too, not just quirky narrators. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.) How can these two apparently contradictory statements be true simultaneously, we ask? And so we read on, curious to find out ...

The best page-turners often start with a huge, impenetrable question, and don't answer it with any degree of truth or accuracy until the final chapter. That takes massive skill, as the reader still needs a series of smaller questions along the way, or semi-answers, to keep them reading through to the big reveal. Good luck!

But maybe you have to answer that first question on the first page, or at the end of Chapter One. What then? Well, then, you ask another question. Preferably at the very end of the chapter. The reader frowns, and turns over. What the hell, they think?

Then they reach the end of Chapter Two, and blimey, there's another question. The heroine is clinging by her perfectly manicured nails to the edge of a cliff, with the waves washing to and fro hundreds of feet below. The reader pauses, glances at the clock, then reads on, sure there's no way the character can survive this time ...

The main thing with a page-turner is to stop the reader feeling able to stop reading and put down the book. It's cruel sometimes, but they'll thank you for it. Everyone loves a page-turner!

So ask a big question at the start, and try not to answer it until the end of the book. Until the very last page, if you can get away with it. And keep asking smaller questions all the way through. Even ending a chapter with something ostensibly tiny and insignificant like, 'The telephone began to ring ...' will make a reader turn over. Why would they do that? To find out who is calling, of course. Then you just have to make sure it's an interesting, plot-moving call, and lo, they are hooked again!

So there you are, friends. Six simple steps to writing a page-turner. Go to it!


My latest page-turner is LOCK THE DOOR: Amazon UK, Amazon US

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Week Thirty-Six: Blogging A Novel Live

So Nanowrimo has finished for another year, and some people will have novels to edit, others will still be finishing, some may even have published their Nano novels already and be promoting them.

I am still finishing my Nanowrimo project, which is an ongoing thriller. Now about 10K words shy of the finishing line, plus edits and checks.

Hopefully that means it will be all ready for my agent to see in another week or so, since I'm the sort who sweeps assiduously behind me as I go along, making post-novel edits a fairly short and painless process. (Until editorial suggestions come in, that is!)

Meanwhile, I have also been doing something very new and a little scary.


DUNE, by Frank Herbert. A superb science fiction novel that was deeply influential on me as a young writer ... and also happens to feature tons of sand. Just like, ahem, Chapter One of my own first sci fi novel, THE CELL.

For the past six weeks, I have been 'blogging a novel'.

Basically, this means publishing one segment per week at roughly the same time. And because I only had just over two thousand words written when I started, it also means I've been writing it on the hoof and publishing straightaway.

An alarming prospect for a perfectionist like me!

You can find the blog here. The working title for this novel is, THE CELL. And it is clearly now a science fiction novel.

I wasn't sure at the outset if it would be science fiction. I knew it would be experimental in some way. But it's now clearly sci fi.

The first few thousand words of THE CELL are based on an uber-short story of the same name that I wrote for a 2012 Salt Publishing anthology called Stories To Read Aloud.

It's basically a character piece that I massively enjoyed writing, and I wanted to give that very rich character her own novel-length story. But I couldn't continue in the same vein for a whole novel, or didn't want to, as it was set in the world of a third century female Christian hermit living alone for years in the Egyptian desert!


The only way I could think of to turn her story into a likely commercial novel was to have a present-day character narrating alongside her with some link to the past. Slipstream, in other words. Maybe a researcher or a modern-day hermit of some kind. Which was an interesting idea, but not a story I felt compelled to tell. Hence not moving forward with that.

So five years down the line of turning this issue over in my head, I went to a talk by Catherine Fox at the RNA Conference, who discussed blogging her novels online, and how the whole process worked.

So I decided to do it myself the same way, and have started to blog the novel in weekly instalments, hoping this would force me to make a decision. And of course it did. By the third instalment, I knew what I wanted to do, and that was to write a science fiction novel. Which was, of course, startlingly different from my opening with a desert hermit ...

But I hope I've managed to make this shift in a convincing and gripping way. You decide!

Read Chapter One here.

What is it they say ... ? When in doubt, have someone walk through the door with a gun. In this case (hurriedly checks genre of novel), a ray-gun.

As far as blogging a novel goes, it's an odd situation. I am trying to publish each new 1-2 thousand word segment, which I'm loosely calling a chapter, at the weekend. So far on a Saturday morning, but that's likely to change as the weeks go on, and I get more stressed or stuck etc.

Catherine Fox said she felt two thousand words was a good length for a post, but I wasn't sure I could commit to two thousand words a week, every week, for over a year, when I have so many other books on the go. So I have opted for one thousand minimum. (Though one chapter so far has been over twice that amount, so it's pretty variable.)

Late in the week, I start thinking about what I'm going to write, and usually sit down to write the 'chapter' on a Thursday or Friday. I have to check back first, and again during the writing, to ensure good continuity in terms of tone as well as action. I try to begin and end each 'chapter' in a suitably gripping manner, to compel readers to continue reading or - if they're new to the story - to want to glance back at earlier chapters and find out what else has happened. At the moment I have two very different narrators, but may include other voices, I'm not sure.

And not being sure what's ahead is part of the fun, and the experience, of blogging a novel once a week, from scratch. When you publish a novel, it's usually been written, edited, checked, thought about almost to death, before the reader even sees the cover. When you blog a novel live, while it's still being written, everything about the usually hidden and mysterious process of constructing a novel becomes transparent and makeshift, even a little rough around the edges.

There may be changes made further down the line. Mistakes, perhaps! Wrong turns and glaring errors. I don't know.

Good grief, I have NO IDEA what happens next ... and this instalment is due out in two hours!

Of course, you could blog a novel that's already completed. But I'm not sure what the point would be. For me, this is a relatively painless way of getting a novel written that might otherwise never be given the time. And making it public like this also ensures I'm more likely to continue, as it could prove embarrassing if I give up and stop halfway.

To recap, blogging a novel as you write it is an interesting thing to do if you can spare a few hours a week, and have a project that's unlikely to be commercial. Because, let's face it, you should probably save commercial projects for selling to a publishing house or self-publishing when complete.  

The Cell is non-commercial at the moment, and an added bonus is that it may save me from the weight of current workloads by providing an escape once a week into this other, slightly crazy fictional world. And although I anticipate taking a good year, maybe a year and a half, to complete the full novel, it's worth the attempt, if only to see how long I can stick at it.

So far, the biggest problems of blogging a novel are twofold.

One, getting back into the main novel I'm working on - a thriller, currently - after spending maybe half a day fiddling with a sci fi chapter.

And two, getting people to read it. I think last week's instalment has only been read by two people. Whoever you are, thank you.

So please, do read it, make me feel better ... Here's Chapter One again.

Early days yet, granted, but I'm open to comments under the blog, and even suggestions on the story or the process. Not saying I'll incorporate suggestions, but I might do! And it's part of the nature of blogging a novel that there's a faint whiff of collaboration with the unseen reader. You are making public what is still being written, and on the hoof too, in a journalistic manner, and so are open to influence, even if only subliminal.

Which is a fun concept!

The Cell: coming weekly to a blog near you over the next 12 months or so.

Please, read, comment, share ... join in!


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Week Thirty-Five: Narrative POV and Tense Choices

I've talked about narrative point-of-view (POV) on this blog before, and brushed against the use of tenses in narrative, but never looked at either of those in any depth.

I have two new novels out this week.

One is an indie (self-published) short romantic novel written under my quirky romcom persona of Beth Good: THE COLOURING BOOK CLUB.

The other is published by Hodder & Stoughton under a new name, Hannah Coates, and is a feel-good Christmas tale for the whole family entitled BERTIE'S GIFT.

I'd like to explore the widely-differing techniques I used for these books, as they come at POV and tense from totally opposite ends of the narrative spectrum.

 BERTIE'S GIFT is a first person, present tense narrative in the voice of the eponymous Bertie, a young and highly inquisitive beagle.

Yes, that's right. It's written in the voice of a dog. And in the present tense, which means the reader is right there from the first sentence, living the story as Bertie. It's a fast, snappy and exciting choice for a feel-good action story, so perfect for BERTIE'S GIFT.

THE COLOURING BOOK CLUB, on the other hand, uses third-person narration and the past tense. This choice came about largely because the events in the book are seen through the eyes of two narrators, Crystal and Emma, and using first person would have been too confusing (for me, let alone the reader) when switching between narratives. Plus, third-person POV more naturally lends itself to the past tense, I personally feel, so the latter choice came along with the former.

This may be because 'She walks across the room,' has a more sinister and 'knowing' feel than the more traditional, 'She walked across the room.'

We're accustomed to the past tense in storytelling, and indeed it makes more logical sense. The past tense is an author or narrator looking back on events with some degree of hindsight, just like the oral storytellers of ancient, pre-lettered cultures. 'Once upon a time' is still a magical invocation. It allows us to settle down for a gripping yarn, secure in the knowledge that we are to some extent passengers and not in any danger from this story. However scared we may get, it was all over long ago!

Present tense narration, on the other hand, puts us right in the picture - with no escape. We open a book and find ourselves in the position of an unseen observer, an inadvertent eavesdropper, hiding behind the sofa or the arras. An uncomfortable - and potentially dangerous - position to be in. (Remember what happened to poor Polonius in Hamlet.) It can make us feel complicit in events, like a bystander who fails to step in and help at some crucial moment. Thus the present tense lends itself to narratives that deliberately push our boundaries as readers: horror or spy stories, thrillers, chillers, psychological fiction, and so on.

I was also aware that THE COLOURING BOOK CLUB is a romantic novel. I had no desire to stand out as unusual in narrative terms - and so put off romance readers looking for a quick comfort read - and while things are rapidly changing in women's fiction, past tense is still the most common choice for traditional romance and its sister genres.

I could easily have chosen present tense for both books, however. I've written a string of books in the present tense over the past couple of years, and it's becoming a far more natural mode of expression for me than when I first tried it. Present tense is also trendy right now, great for engendering a sense of urgency and immediacy, and can feel quite strong as a narrative technique. Perhaps a little too strong. Like an onion.

So while it's useful for writers hoping to make an impact straight out of the gate, and draw readers deep into the heads of their characters, present tense can also overpower your narrative if it's not right for the story.

I've often been asked, 'Should I write my new novel in past or present tense?' My answer is always, sit down and start writing your story without considering that question.

Whatever comes most naturally in your first few lines is probably the correct choice.

To force a story to be told in a particular tense over some technical or external consideration (because it's fashionable, for instance) may lead to later changes of heart, massive and painstaking rewriting, and then misery, followed by flip-flopping and more massive rewriting to 'fix' it. This is often because the chosen tense can inform the way you tell a story, and just changing the tense can lead to narrative issues you didn't intend.

I've done this myself, fretting over technique instead of devoting my energies to the storytelling. So don't worry too much about such choices before beginning your novel. Just start to write in an instinctive way, and the right person and tense should come naturally in your very first line ...

To combine present tense with first-person POV is the most in-your-face way of telling a story, as I do in BERTIE'S GIFT, and is hugely trendy at the moment.

The immediacy and emotional impact of that combination makes it an absolute winner for people raised on film and television, where they can follow lovers into the bedroom, and murderers or victims right up to the moment of death - and even beyond. They're not so keen on 'Once upon a time' anymore - though there's still a perfectly valid place for that technique, and indeed it may become fashionable again in a swings-and-roundabouts way.

At Killer Women Fest last weekend in London, I went to a workshop run by Tammy Cohen and Amanda Jennings, where the use of second-person narration in psychological fiction was briefly discussed. We all agreed that, while it's quite powerful to read a 'You walked across the room' narrative - and second-person can feel very creepy indeed in a psychological thriller - it should be used sparingly. More like garlic than onion, to continue the metaphor.

But I then went home and made use of that insight, as a dab of second-person POV might help solve a dilemma in a current work-in-progress. It may not make the final manuscript but it's worth trying. Everything is worth trying.

So don't be afraid to experiment with POV and tenses, but remember: if it feels right, it probably is right. And vice versa. Just like cooking up a sauce, always go with your gut.

BERTIE'S GIFT is out Thursday 20th October.




THE COLOURING BOOK CLUB was out yesterday, only 99p the ebook. Ppb coming soon!