Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Week Twenty: Ten Ways To Tackle The Novella

Writing a briskly paced novella can easily be fitted between longer projects.

Apologies for taking so long to resume my weekly posts on How To Write A Novel. I was beset by health issues while trying to finish my novel, and time got away from me.

But you behold me back in the saddle, and ready to apply the crop. If you'll forgive the slightly BDSM metaphor.

There have been times this year when I have not felt able to grapple with the larger canvas of my novel, but wished to produce shorter fiction for self-publishing. (One must eat, after all.) On those occasions, I have turned to the tricky form known as the novella. The novella is not long enough for the label of 'novel' yet too long for a short story. It's generally considered to begin at about the 15,000 word mark, or sometimes 20. And it ends in the region of 40,000 words whereafter it can safely be considered a novel.

I have one short festive novella for sale at the moment, recently published, as an illustration of the lower word band: The Oddest Little Christmas Shop. And its sister novella, published during the summer under the pen-name Beth Good, which is rather longer: The Oddest Little Chocolate Shop. But even that is still too short to be a novel. Both these novellas have sold very well.

So how do you approach the writing of a novella as opposed to the novel form? Are there any inherent differences, apart from the merely technical one of length?

Here are TEN WAYS to tackle the writing of a novella.

1. One Plot To Rule Them All
The novella does not have room for multiple subplots. Decide in advance on your main plot, and perhaps one closely matched subplot, then execute the narration as simply as possible.  

2. Clear Premise or Theme
All stories have a basic premise or theme - crime never pays, or love conquers all - but in a novel, these 'messages' can be complex or layered. In a novella, the premise should be so simple or clear-cut, it can be gleaned from a one sentence description of your story.

3. A Few Good Characters
The novella is not the best place to unfold a sprawling family saga. Think of it as a cross between a fairy tale and a Beckett play. You can have more characters than a short story could comfortably hold, if you wish, but you will achieve greater intensity by focusing on a narrow range - say, two to five characters at most.

4. There Can Be Only One
Closely allied to No. 1, this is a requirement for simple narration. I don't mean simplistic - you could chose a strong and complex character as your narrator. Even an unreliable narrator. But choose either first person or only one third person POV narrator. If you stray from this, your style of narration should remain consistent, at least.

A short festive novella: one narrator, one POV, one storyline.

5. Short Scenes, Kept In Proportion
Avoid overly drawn-out ten page scenes. Plan your novella as a series of beats, like musical notation. Important scenes are a long beat, transitional scenes a short one. But even your 'big' scenes will be shorter than in a traditional novel. Think minimalism.

6. Keep The Line Taut
All stories require tension and conflict, but in a novel, you have time to build slowly to a climax if you wish. In a novella, as in a short story, you need to hit the ground running. Establish your basic conflict in the first pages, then add to it in each new scene until you reach maximum tension, like the Buckaroo game where the donkey eventually kicks off his load.

7. Experiment With Structure
I normally divide my novellas into chapters, because I feel that provides a novel-like structure to shorter fiction. But you could experiment with alternative methods of division: a line break between sections could work well in a short novella with only one narrator, and maintain tone very nicely. Or you could break up sections with a repeated gimmick: a quatrain of poetry, for instance, or a riddle, quotation or aphorism in italics. Have fun with it!

8. Rounding Out And Tying Up
Some writers approach the novella as a novel in microcosm. But a novel may have very different reasons to a novella for existing, and one thing that divides them is the idea of overarching structure. A novel's overarching purpose or structure may be very complex indeed, even diffuse, which fits our way of reading novels over an extended period. With a story that can be read in one sitting, plot structure needs to be strongly rounded, with a distinct sense of closure or completion, as any loose ends or vague petering out will be glaringly obvious.  

Sometimes a novella is so successful, it can spawn a series or brand: Oddest Little Chocolate Shop

9. Pitching To Publishers - Or Not
Within popular genres such as science fiction, fantasy or romance, there is a traditional market for the novella. Many publishers, especially those who run a strong digital list, will take on a good novella that fits their guidelines on length and content. If you have written a niche/genre novella, look at publishers' guidelines for submissions within that field. Many digital start-ups, for instance, welcome novella writers. Though be warned, you are unlikely to be paid much. My advice, therefore, is to self-publish where possible, and market on social media as a 'quick read' to fans of that genre. For non-genre novellas, especially shorter ones, the market remains vague and unpromising. Good luck!

10. The Novella Series
The short form of the novella lends itself well to a series. This can be linked by title alone - see my Oddest Little novella brand above - or by characters, setting, or even theme. It is always useful to plan the series before starting, but you may come to it after one or two publications have been successful. Probably best to keep word count and structural divisions similar between titles, as readers expect this. Maintaining a particular narrative style will also please readers who liked your first book for it. A five book series is a good length for a series, especially for shorter novellas, and when self-publishing, you can produce a higher priced omnibus edition at the end.

QUESTION: What makes you choose to read a novella rather than a novel?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Week Nineteen: Beginning and Ending Chapters

Commercial novels demand tighter chapter endings and beginnings than other kinds of books, to maintain tension across a broad readership.

In any commercial novel, from thrillers to romances, the writing is generally expected to be fast-paced and gripping wherever possible. Notable exceptions aside, there is little space for leisurely meandering towards an important event, or for interesting sidetracks between events. Once the reader puts your book down, perhaps to sleep or have dinner or get off the train, you have lost them - unless you can leave your main character in such a breathtaking spot at the end of each chapter that they have no choice but to pick it up again as soon as possible.

Beginning A Chapter

There are two or three basic ways to begin a chapter.

The first is to pick up exactly where you left off at the end of the last. This is where the chapter division is not there to indicate time passing, but delivers a 'beat' in a scene, i.e. a pause which allows vital information to sink into the reader's mind. Maybe some great revelation has just been made, or a terrible confrontation enacted. A pause is required, for both reader and character to dust themselves off, reevaluate the world of the story, shake their heads at someone's villainy, or gather another important clue in a whodunnit.

The second method is to break up the story into intervals or sections of time, i.e. indicate that time has passed. So the last chapter ends with, Jack turned over in bed and let himself drift off to sleep, giving up on the impossible question of how a cat had been able to escape a locked room. The next chapter might then begin, with perfect convention, The next morning, Jack woke with the answer. A secret trapdoor!

'The next day Muldoon's alarm woke him at 7am as usual.' Wait! That's not a very exciting way to start a chapter. Hmm. 'Muldoon had only been asleep a few hours when he was woken by an almighty explosion.' Yes, much better.

Or the chapter break might serve as a useful point at which to jump to another character's point of view. So the chapter might begin, At that very moment, Sylvester the cat was walking along a narrow wall some ten feet below Jack's window, his slitty green eyes fixed on the bouncing approach of headlights in the dark. For less experienced writers, this method is usually better than shifting viewpoint midway through a chapter, even if it means very short chapters; no offence, but it is genuinely difficult to shift POV during a scene or within a chapter without jarring the reader's trust in the narration. And the shorter the chapter, the more tense and fast-paced the narration, so you win both ways.

In general, keeping chapters short is a sound commercial approach. Our attention spans as readers are getting ever smaller as books contend with time spent on television, films and computers. The theme should be simple, the blurb a soundbite, and the chapters as succinct and purposeful as you can make them.

So how long should a chapter be? This depends on genre and individual tastes. Sci fi novels set in space are often great tomes with chapters as long as your arm, for instance. But anything over ten pages needs to earn its place in a would-be commercial novel, and even a three page chapter is not a bad idea if the episode contained within it has the force of a sledgehammer. Basically, anything that gives a genre novel more of a 'hook' for a reader also endows it with more commercial value.

Literary writers, this does not apply to you. Though frankly, you will not ruin your stories by making them snappier.

Ending A Chapter

The end of a chapter is a moment fraught with danger. Will the reader continue onto the next chapter, and possibly risk lack of sleep or missing their train stop, or will they put your book away and start again tomorrow? Obviously writers don't want readers to starve themselves or avoid visiting the toilet in order to read on. (Honest, guv.) But if you can leave a reader on tenterhooks and keen to return to your book after a necessary break, you are less likely to lose them.

Ending a chapter on dialogue is always a great choice. Dialogue can contain far more in a shorter number of words than prose narration can ever hope to do, because good dialogue reveals character, and character drives plot. So with dialogue you get both pace and character, along with nuance and plot. It's a winning combination.

But what kind of dialogue?

In general, you need something that will shift the narrative in a new direction, such as a vital or shocking reveal: 'Sylvester is an alien, not a cat,' she explained, bursting with excitement, 'and his species are planning to invade Earth!' Or a piece of information that will make the reader turn the page in a fever of anxiety: 'Get out, get out, the whole building's wired to explode!' 

Readers browsing in bookshops or libraries (and editors looking for new writers!) often scan the first few chapters to get a sense of pace. So make sure your first few chapters in particular begin and end in exciting ways.

If you don't have anything that explosive to hand, don't worry. You only need to suggest that the plot is about to shift or a huge reveal is about to happen. It's called cheating, and it's okay so long as you don't do it too often in a book, because that can alienate your reader very quickly. For instance, in the above example where Sylvester is disclosed at the end of the chapter as being an alien, the next chapter could begin, 'Don't be ridiculous,' Jack exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief. 'Sylvester is not an alien, he's a real cat. I just had him neutered.'

If going with prose instead of dialogue, a short paragraph is best. Something that both sums up what came before and points to what's next. Even better is a pithy one-liner, if you can get that to work without over-egging the pudding. But don't forget that the need for pace and the 'reveal' of vital information still applies. For example: Sylvester sat motionless, watching the vast mothership descend out of cloud.

But the main idea with both dialogue and prose endings is to make it impossible for the reader to chuck the book aside and carry on with their lives without giving another thought to your story. So whichever kind of chapter ending you choose, tick the checklist to see if it swings the story at a right-angle, reveals character, drives plot, and makes your reader turn the page.

QUESTION: How do you prefer to end your chapters - and why?

Friday, 29 August 2014

Week Eighteen: Writing Your Novel

Sometimes you need to put everything else aside ... and just write.

I have been busy writing my novel this week, in amongst the usual mad stuff that happens towards the end of the school holidays, and didn't get round to doing my weekly blog post until now, on a Friday!

So I thought, what can I blog about?

Then it struck me.

I've been so busy writing recently, I haven't had time to think about how-to-write or what to blog or any of that other background nonsense that goes on when you're a writer and a busy parent and a professional with obligations to fulfil. It can be hard to get a strong writing schedule going when you are being pulled in ten different directions at once. I've been saying no thanks, and not yet, and maybe another time, and sorry ... all so I can write. I'm between contracts, as they say, and have to finish this novel before I can get back into a healthy situation, writing-wise.

So this week's 'how-to-write' advice is very, very simple.

Just write your novel.

And here's how:

If possible find a private space where you can write undisturbed for a few hours. A place where everyone knows you are working and are under orders not to burst in, asking where their clean socks are kept or when dinner will be ready. Virginia Woolf knew all about this: unlike gentlemen, women of her era rarely had access to 'a room of one's own' where they could write. In an earlier age, Jane Austen had to write in a corner of a busy room with people coming and going around her. But anywhere will do, even the cupboard under the stairs or a shed: at one stage, the place we were living in was so small, I had to turn the tiny frosted glass porchway into my study. It was boiling hot on sunny days and freezing in winter, and the postman thought I was mad, but it was a private space away from the kids and it worked.

Block out extraneous noise with headphones or ear plugs, or listen to music.

Lock or block the door.

Hang a sign on the door that says Go Away or warn family not to approach. (Maybe set an alarm to go off elsewhere to let them know when it's safe to ask you if you want a cuppa. One hour minimum, better yet three.)

Know what you aim to write beforehand, so you don't waste the first 20 minutes fiddling about with a plot change or dithering over a character's name. Outline the scene or chapter you need to write, then execute that plan as closely as you can without becoming rigid about it.

Put fingers to keys, or pen to paper, and just write. Get into the 'zone' where words flow and you barely need to think what you're writing, it just happens naturally. If you're the sort who corrects as you go along - as I am - make sure you don't get bogged down in minutiae. If you get stuck on a problematic sentence or scene, just sweep past it and make a side note to return later. The important thing is to make the most of your writing time. To get the words down and build a respectable word count by the end of the session. You can always craft them later.

Set a goal that works for you: 3 pages by lunchtime, or 1000 words before midnight. It doesn't matter how much, only that you hit your goal more often than you miss it. Be realistic and don't push yourself if your life is currently insane. If you're unwell or working a full-time job, time slots will need to be shorter. And if you have a young baby in the house, you may have to write between feeds: 300 words here, 100 there. It all adds up.

At the end of each writing time, congratulate yourself, regardless of how much or how little you managed. It's not easy, writing a novel. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and it takes stamina and determination. Maybe you've only written one page today, but it's still one page more than you had when you sat down to write. So treat yourself to a nice coffee or whatever makes you feel good. You've earned it!

QUESTION: Do you have a set routine when you write that helps you get 'into the zone', or is it different every time?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Week Seventeen: Researching Your Novel

Every novel requires some form of research, even if it's only where you might buy a ribbon for an old typewriter like this. Sounds like detective work? It has its moments ...

Every novel needs to be researched, not just stories set in bizarre or exotic locations, or historical novels. If you already know your world well - you work or live there, for instance - this research may be minimal. But you will still need to allocate time to do it. For instance, does your fictitious law firm share its name and location with a real-life company? Better change that, or you risk being sued. And how many doors does that particular make of hatchback have?

Basic tips include: keep a notepad at the ready, in case you spot an answer to a riddle while out and about, or hear an interesting fact on television; keep copious, detailed notes of all your research, preferably in one place (I learned this the hard way); if taking notes from the internet or a book, keep a note of URLS, article titles and author names, page numbers and full publishing details (remember to do this even when you cut and paste, so you can refer back to that website if you later need more details or are compiling a list of acknowledgements or a bibliography). Also, importantly, if a fact is vital to your story, double or indeed triple-check it with a respected source. Don't just accept Wikipedia's version, in other words!

Try to research in a meaningful way. If you're looking up a fact about handguns, don't get sidetracked into reading three chapters on field artillery, however fascinating. Don't let research become a fetish.

Some facts can be easy to research or double-check. A few clicks and you have that missing data. But for complicated settings, especially historical ones, you may need to compile a vast wealth of accurate, double-checked details, some of them hard to discover in the first place. Sometimes thorough research may be your only path to a finished manuscript. Sometimes you can type Chapter One with an easy conscience, and deal with issues as they come up.

So how to go about this?

I can't write this novel yet. I don't even know what my main protagonist's surname should be. He's Russian, born 1947, his father was a political prisoner ... Time to hit the books!

Research First, Write Later
Some writers prefer to do their research before they begin the novel. That way, all the information they need is close at hand. They can plan a book, secure in the knowledge that their plot hinges on a particular stagecoach journey time in 1823; not only have they checked that timetable, they know all the inns along the way, what kind of meals they might have offered a weary traveller, and even how the coach driver would have been dressed.

But this method - research-first, write-later - holds considerable dangers for the unwary writer.

If you think research is more entertaining than the hard work of writing the actual novel, and have not set yourself a cast-iron deadline for beginning to write, you may find yourself drifting. One month, two months, three ... and the novel is never started. In the end, you may find you've spent a whole year on researching the minutest detail of your proposed story, and are now so bored by it, you chuck it over for some new, as yet unresearched idea.

To avoid this danger, decide beforehand when you are going to start writing the novel - and stick to it! Anything you don't know by then will have to be researched on the hoof. Which brings me to method number two for researching a novel.

Researching on the Hoof
Those impatient to start chapter one may well decide they know enough to begin writing without further research. Hopefully these are not delusional types whose efforts will soon end in disaster, but those who have prior experience of writing about this world or location - or are in the category I mentioned above, i.e. they know it intimately because it's their everyday world. My own preference is for plunging in at page one, perhaps after a cursory check on date, time, location for my story, then researching on the hoof, i.e. as I write.

The method is simple.

You're writing an historical novel, and your protagonist is changing her dress. You can't recall what might have been worn to an informal soiree in the late Regency. Or you know the gown, but not the shoes. What would they have looked like? For my Tudor stories, I have used the internet and also fantastic book and website resources like The Tudor Tailor to ensure my descriptions of clothes for various social classes are as accurate as possible. So to check those facts, to get each tiny detail correct, you stop work for a few minutes - hopefully not more than an hour! - and do your specific research. Then get back to the job of writing.

Visiting Locations
Whichever method you use, if you need to visit a certain location for your book - a local factory, for example, or an area of London - you will need to plan ahead. There's no good visiting after you've written that scene, as seeing a place with your own eyes may completely change your approach. If it proves expensive - for instance, involving a trip abroad - try to find a way to use that location again. That way you're getting more than one book for the cost of a single research trip.

Take notes and photographs, which should be as exhaustive as possible. Write down what you photographed and in which order so you can readily identify your shots later. Buy postcards, guide books, local maps. Grab secret candid shots of the locals for your own use. Making your own film on an iPhone or camera is also advisable if you need to really capture the atmosphere or remember how you got from A to B. After all, you don't know when you will be able to return there. (You could even share it on Youtube and social media, and get a little advance publicity for your project.)

Don't simply wander a location though, taking notes and photographs. You're a novelist, which means you need to write in the narrative voice of a person who is actually in that location, at a certain time, doing particular things. So approach your visit as if you are that person. Imagine where he or she would stand or sit, how they might act, what kind of smells and sights and textures they might experience. Make notes later, if you like, but that part may need to be deeply internalised. Drawn into yourself and experienced through the senses of your narrator, in other words. And that's something no external fact-finding can replicate.

Plus, don't forget that research is a legitimate tax-deductible expense if/when your book is published. So even if you don't have a contract yet, keep all receipts from research trips and general expenses.

When writing THE QUEEN'S SECRET, I was lucky enough to live only a few miles from Kenilworth Castle, where all the action takes place in 1575. Being a 'local' meant I was able to visit the location frequently, check all my facts personally, and really soak up the atmosphere.

Writers' Resources
Never underestimate the usefulness of long library visits, especially to specialist libraries - though getting a Reader's Ticket may be tricky - or a good research book written by an expert, but the internet is where you're likely to find most nuggets of information quickly. It's also great for turning up odd information, the kind that's hard to pinpoint in a book. The toilet habits of medieval princes, for instance.

Join groups on Facebook in your chosen field, or on Goodreads, or an informative group blog like English Historical Fiction Authors - anywhere people gather to exchange information. If really stuck, try a shout-out on Twitter and hope people retweet your request for information until someone turns up an answer or a possible resource to try. Social media is a great place to ask research questions, so make friends with other people interested in your research area. Some historical programme presenters are actually on Twitter and might reply to a question or two, if you're polite and not pushy.

And get yourself a Youtube account, or browse there. If you can't visit a location, you may find it's already on film on Youtube - someone's amateur holiday film, perhaps, or a genuine expert's view, perhaps compiled themselves or a snippet from a television programme. It's free, and it all helps.

Employing the Writer's Flannel
Sadly, it's not always possible to find the fact you need, or not at the time you need it. In that case, you may need to use 'writer's flannel' to bypass your problem. This is a kind of textual shuffle, a little narrative sleight-of-hand, whereby you appear to have used a fact, but have actually sidestepped it. In other words, when in doubt, write around the unknown fact and hope nobody notices. They probably won't. 'Her shoes pinched' is better for conjuring up an atmosphere than a detailed description of the stitching and fabric of a pair of Regency shoes.

There can be such a thing as too much research, often evidenced by large wodges of barely digestible information or description. The ideal is to digest it all yourself, then only use a small percentage of what you know, keeping the rest on hand so that you sound like an authority on the subject, yet never bore the reader with your excess of knowledge.

Queen Victoria finished her slice of plum cake and glanced at the text message alert on her iPhone ... wait, that doesn't sound right. Oh hell, no one will notice!

Finally, remember that no one version of history, or indeed any other 'fact', is the definitive one. Some facts and dates may be reasonably solid and easily verified: when Queen Victoria died, when the First World War began, the current members of the cabinet etc. But most 'facts' are rather more slippery than that. How long is a piece of string, how many minutes to soft boil an egg? Bear this simple truth in mind when taking notes: just because the writer of an article or book is respected as an expert and has letters after their name does not mean their version of the truth is the most accurate one. We all have opinions and biases, and that includes 'experts'.

I repeat: trust no one. Do your research, double and triple-check it, then write what you believe to be the truth. Oddly enough, that's all anyone else can do too.

QUESTION: do you prefer to research beforehand or on the hoof? Does it jar you out of a book when you spot a fact that's wrong?

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Week Sixteen: Where To Start Your Novel

Some writers make notes or write outlines beforehand; others plunge straight into the story ... but where do they start?

There is nothing so wonderful as beginning to write a new novel. The failures are all ahead of you, only a few preliminary notes and a feeling of excitement - which could be indigestion - are behind you. You've been bottling it up for days, weeks, perhaps even months. Now at last you can write your first few pages ...

But where to start? When Victoria sits down to write her sixteenth blog post? Or a few minutes beforehand, when she gets that life-changing call from her agent? Perhaps you should go further back, start with some cleverly-sketched backstory: maybe that day many decades ago when she stuck her puny ten-year-old fist in the air and vowed to become a bestselling novelist, or when she had that incredible idea for a kickass story while balancing on an inflated gym ball in her exercise class?

The start of your novel is not about set-up and backstory, though it can involve those to some extent. Rather, it is a sacred moment, breathing life into clay you have shaped with your own hands. Your world is born out of nothing; your characters rise up and start making things happen; a predestined chain of events is set in motion, racing toward an unseen finish line. The beginning of every story is that moment when a storyteller invokes the magic territory by saying the four magic words, 'Once upon a time ...'

Heads turn in the room, a hush descends, people settle, and your readers willingly step alongside you into the magical world of The Story.

"Once upon a time ..." Erm ...

None of which helps the novelist in any practical sense, though it may put more pressure on her to get it right. So let's look at more practical methods of deciding where to start.

I am not speaking now to those people who launch into faeryland like The Fool in the old Tarot pack, not looking where they are going but whistling merrily, a pack on their back, stepping out over the abyss as though it were solid ground. Those people are either deeply talented magicians, implicitly trusting the story to keep them from falling, or they are idiots who think planning will stifle their creative spirit. I am talking instead to the rest of us, mortals with a brain, who know storytelling is an art but also know themselves to be capable of whacking great mistakes, so like to venture out with some kind of story map in their pack, from 'X marks the spot' on the back of an envelope to the most up-to-date Sat Nav.

So where to begin?

Most writers know that character shows itself most clearly under pressure. Like the old Latin saying, in vino veritas (truth in wine), a character reveals itself through the choices made when the usual social constraints have fallen away, perhaps because a zombie has come crashing through the living-room window or they've discovered a bomb under the table.

The door opened, and Captain Darkblood stood there, a snub-nosed revolver in his hand pointing right at my heart. "Step away from the typewriter, Victoria. You've written your last adjective."

Equally, the time to begin a story is when your character is under pressure. Not just any pressure, but an inciting pressure, a pressure that forces them to take action. Not pressure that crushes and near-destroys your protagonist, in other words - that comes later, at the climax - but just enough pressure to make your character jump up and start dancing. So Victoria is feverishly typing her blog post when the call comes in: her agent says, 'Now look, Victoria, I don't want you to worry, but apparently there's a bomb under your desk.'

How's that for a hook?

Obviously though, as readers on page one, we can't really care - beyond basic human sympathy - about a character we don't know yet. So Victoria is about to be blown to smithereens. So what? Go ahead and let the bomb detonate. The world could do with one less writer. (More chance for the rest of us, eh?)

So either we need to make the reader care from line one, which is tough to achieve, or we need to show the character just before the pressure situation, to reveal them as sympathetic and someone we ought to care about, someone funny or kind or clever or worth our attention in some way. A child, obviously, gets an instant sympathy vote from most people (except other children!) but in most cases the writer's main protagonist will be an adult. So how to make them sympathetic in a hurry?

Okay, you might say. Let's have Victoria's young curly-headed son pop his head round the door in the first paragraph, and say sweetly, maybe with a tear in his eye, 'Hey, mum, you haven't forgotten we're visiting Grandma in the hospital, have you? I've baked a special cake for her.' To which Victoria will reply, 'No, darling, of course not. I know how important it is for you to visit your dying grandmother who may snuff it at any moment and ... Oh wait, is that the phone?' Cue agent with bomb warning/threat. Now we have Victoria, her young son, and a specially baked cake about to go skyhigh. Plus the dying grandmother will never get to see her family again ...

Seriously though, the real key to making a reader care what happens to your main protagonist is narrative voice.

That's it. Everything else is just scenery, window-dressing.

Narrative voice does not have to be trustworthy or sympathetic in the conventional sense; it can trick us, lie to us, even make our stomachs churn. But it must force us to keep reading.

This initial narrative voice - which can be first, third, even second person - must enter the reader's head from line one and hold them spellbound. So make it a magical voice: intriguing, clever, intimate, confidential, witty, sexy, dangerous, inviting, moreish - right there in the reader's ear. Your narrative viewpoint character on page one is your storyteller, even if this is a prologue and a character who is never seen again. The narrator can change later, especially in a multiple perspective novel, but the first voice or voices encountered are all-important. The narration can be sympathetic or even vile; but we must care what happens next. Because this is the voice that says the magic words, 'Once upon a time ...' and woe betide if they fail to hook the reader.

So to recap, very simply, in answer to the question 'where does my story start?' the answer should be, 'at or preferably just before a moment of inciting pressure, involving a narrator we immediately care about or whose potential failure intrigues us.'

So dump the backstory and start just before the big bang instead. You'd be surprised how little backstory you really need, and how much can be conveyed in a line or two of dialogue, further on, on a strictly need-to-know basis. Make the reader trust your narrator, and they'll come along for the ride without the backstory.

QUESTIONS: which novels have you read that reeled you in from page one, and how did the writer do it? Do you ever have problems knowing where to start your story, and how do you deal with that?

Monday, 4 August 2014

Week Fifteen: Writing Scenes

Cut the waffle, and make something happen ...

This may seem obvious, but novels are made up out of scenes. Yet one of the problems even established writers can face is moving their characters in and out of scenes cleanly.

You've probably read examples of this yourself in published novels: the characters are talking, but nothing changes. Nothing happens. The reader is forced to gnaw her own arm off out of sheer frustration.

So what's gone wrong? The writer is 'between scenes' here, unsure how to manoeuvre her characters out of one situation and into another. So what you get first is an introduction scene - rather like a green room at a festival - where the characters wait before going on stage. Later you will have a debriefing scene where characters discuss the events of the preceding scene. The writer tells you what is going to happen; then shows it happening; then reminds you what just happened.

If you find yourself caught in this trap, the thing to do is take a leaf out of a scriptwriter's book and start writing in scenes.

Essentially, this entails imagining your story as a film. You create a 'storyboard' made up of scenes - the encounter scene, the kidnap scene, the campfire scene, the sex scene, the rescue scene - and then write straight in and out of them. No long intros, no faffing about with mundanities, no scenes of exposition afterwards that may leave your reader squirming with boredom. You cut to the chase, as they used to say in movie-making.

In media res ...
Most good writers know to start a scene in media res: in the middle of things. But I've seen this taken to extremes: no introduction at all, no scene setting, just a line of dialogue and bang, we're away. That's not the answer either. In film, there is usually an 'establishing shot' - the outside of a hospital or house, to let us know where this scene is set - and you need that in your novel too.

The establishing intro does not need to be elaborate. A simple one-liner like, 'Charlotte Street was empty and dark, except for a sickly pool of light under the one street lamp still working' may be all you need. Or if retelling Little Red Riding Hood, a neat jump cut from a terrifying encounter with Mr Wolf might be, 'Grandma's house is on the other side of the wood, and a good fifteen minute walk; today I reach it in eight minutes flat, my face hot with exertion. "Grandma?" I knock, but there's no reply.'

Then write your action scene.

A scene should be like a kernel, a seed that contains all the information - the DNA, if you like - about your story, but in miniature. If you can write individual scenes that mimic, in some way, the overarching action of your plot, you will be doing well. This should happen naturally when you are on top form, and struggling for it will not improve your novel, so don't worry too much. But if you see it happening, learn from that and see where else you can draw comparisons with other parts of your story or echo your theme in a scene's backdrop or action.

Gustave Dore's portrayal of the poet Dante, lost in a dark wood in the Inferno - this happens to us all!

To help with this, stay visual in your writing. Your creative brain is much cleverer than your conscious mind, so trust yourself to reach for a strong visual metaphor when setting your scene. Landscape and specific objects may seem to have arrived in a random manner, but if you're writing well, you may find they click perfectly with your story. The scary dark wood in Little Red Riding Hood is a common visual metaphor for when characters have lost their way or are faced with the unknown - see Dante for more details. Henry James knew about visual metaphor when he called his novel about broken relationships The Golden Bowl, as did Dashiell Hammett with The Maltese Falcon.

Objects like this may be brilliant visual metaphors, or they may be McGuffins, unimportant except in their value to the plot. Either way they provide a hook for the reader that makes a story truly memorable. In particular, they provide a pivotal point around which an action scene can swing, giving it added momentum on the way out.

Keep scenes as short as possible. Short scenes avoid the loose ramblings of a writer who is mentally on her way to the kettle, and they increase the pace and tension. Books can sag, especially in the middle. A series of short scenes, sharp in, even swifter out, can tauten your structure until it sings with tension.

Anything that goes over more than, say, six or seven pages, is edging into long scene territory and will slow your novel and lose you tension. If you can't avoid that, it's probably quite a complex scene, in which case, see if you can break the big scene into smaller units of action. This works best when there are multiple characters and you can switch between them, as a camera lens might do during a fight or confrontation.

For inspiration, see this classic scene below - using a musical pocket watch as a focal and auditory point for the scene - from For A Few Dollars More.

In general, avoid lengthy scenes - these easily slip out of your control and into unnecessary dialogue you did not intend to happen - especially those that remain in one location, like the interior of a car. Road trip stories are an exception, but even then, find a way to break up the monotony of a claustrophobic setting: force your characters into bars, up mountains, down holes in the road - anywhere but the passenger seat!

QUESTION: Have you ever found your characters talking aimlessly - maybe over a pot of tea - and been unsure how to move them on? What tips do you have for maintaining scene tension?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Week Fourteen: Four-Point Commercial Checklist

"Murder will out," they say, and many in publishing still claim to believe the same of good books. "Great writing will always find a market," we are told as writers, along with that golden oldie, "All good authors will be published eventually."

This sop to our vanity is no longer true, if it ever was. Or it can be true if we are prepared to self-publish.

Not every writer will get their books into the shops. And the journey to get them there - and keep them there - is more complicated and fiendish than anyone outside commercial fiction would ever believe.

Commercial publishing is shrinking, and author lists are shrinking with it. More rapidly than ever. There is every possibility that you will write a good book this year or next, perhaps even a great book, yet be unable to place it with a reputable publisher. Or you may have talent and a reasonable track record, yet fail to attract a publisher willing to go to contract on the strength of a proposal alone. Meanwhile the bills have to be paid ...

It's tempting to assume that every book taken on is now a major risk for publishers, except new work by the very top names - or complete unknowns. Yes, dear new writers with good books, you are not in too bad a position in terms of attracting publishing deals. New writers have not yet 'failed', so you will always be more attractive to the money people whom editors have to convince when they decide to acquire a book. But woe betide if your debut sells less well than expected. Because it's all about sales these days. And I can perfectly understand why publishing is fast becoming a closed shop. In this culture of fear, risk-taking is akin to professional suicide. Far better to give a flat no - or offer the most meagre terms possible - than lose money on a book deal and face the firing squad yourself.

So what's the answer to this narrowing of the publishing arteries?

As I see it, there are several courses open to writers in this position. You can resign yourself to diminishing advances and precarious contracts, and maybe even shift into self-publishing, or you can change what you're writing to become even more commercial, in the hope that this will save you from the graveyard of good writers that has become mid-list publishing.

Literary writers will, quite rightly, reject that last idea. Literary fiction has always been a precarious medium - and anyway, out there on the razor's edge is the best place for experimental fiction to thrive. If you expect no money, and are happier with a small publisher who understands what you're trying to do and will support you with that, you will not miss earning your living by words alone.

"I'm not compromising my creative spirit to churn out a blockbuster. I love this garret."

Mid-list authors keen to explore the freedom and adventure of self-publishing may shrug off traditional publishing at this point and find a new path through these dangerous waters, and good luck to them. I have paddled there myself and know it can be very liberating to self-publish, not to mention lucrative.

For truly commercial writers who do not wish to self-publish, however, adapting to the demands of this brave new marketplace is the only viable response. Nobody wants to drag themselves to the desk every morning feeling like a dinosaur, reading their sales figures with a heart sinking as rapidly as the numbers.

But what does it mean, to write more commercially?

The answers change in specifics according to each publisher and genre, but in general you need to ensure this simple Four-Point Commercial Checklist applies to your manuscript, at least to some degree:

Strong or high-concept story, preferably strikingly original in some elements, but not so original that it won't fit into current book categories. Check it can be described in a simple phrase - or better still in the title itself.

High stakes action. Start with life and death, then work upwards. The more people potentially affected by your story, the higher the stakes.

Accessible, cleanly written prose. Your book can be as complicated plot-wise as you like, but it must be written for as broad a readership as possible. Keep sentences uncluttered, say what you mean, be elegant if you wish - but save your deathless prose for your literary alter-ego.

Larger-than-life characters that keep a reader turning the pages. (You may think you write these anyway, but it's a fair bet you don't. Think larger. No, even larger than that. You need characters a reader will never forget.)

As you can see from that list, writing more commercially is nothing to do with writing in a popular genre or following trends or writing longer or shorter books. It's about making your books memorable without becoming melodramatic, and simple without becoming simplistic.

It comes down to being a great storyteller. And above all this, you also have to believe in your story and not write in in a cynical, 'this will get me published' way.

Tough, huh?

"Jim knew he only had thirty seconds to save the entire universe ..." Are your stakes high enough?

If you knuckle down and do all those things, and still can't get a publisher to take your book, let's face it, you're screwed. But don't worry. There's always self-publishing. More on that in another post.

Oh, and my latest novel WITCHRISE is published today!

QUESTION: What do you think makes a book commercial these days? And would you ever change the way you write just to keep being published?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Week Thirteen: Why Novels Are Like Apples

The best-laid plots ...
I've been thinking this week about plots, genres, and how they can so easily go awry when you're not watching. Literary novels can go off in any direction they want. But most commercial novels are all about the plot. Characters are important, yes. Vitally important. Characters are what drive the novel forward, after all. But in general they have to do something for the book to take off. The Hundred Year Old Man is fascinating - but it's not until he Climbed out Of A Window and Disappeared that we started buying his story in droves.

So let's cram as many events as possible into our stories, the new writer might say. If action and plot are what is required, let's put something amazing in each chapter, and crown it with a genre twist.

But of course this will not work. Yes, we want action as well as character. But what we do not want is chaos. Fiction is like real life, but it is not real life. It has to be controlled, fenced in, kept in order by its creator. Stories must stick to the plan. Worlds must cohere. Mild-mannered country folk cannot run away and become international jewel thieves - unless that is the crux of your story. (See The Hobbit for details.)

Stick with the genre you came in with. At least for this book.

Genre is all-important in this. Genre tells you your parameters and how far you can push them. It can feel like a limitation at times, but more often it's a liberation. It allows you to focus, really focus, on language, the nuts and bolts of writing, on narrative, on dialogue, on pacing and structure, and forget - to some extent, once you've set it down in outline - about plot. Like a partner at a dance, you need to stick with the genre you came in with or risk losing your reader's trust. (From Dusk Till Dawn is a notable exception in film terms, which I stumbled across one night on the television and watched with my jaw hanging open.) In other words, you can't start out writing a comic novel, then turn it into a romance, then rev it up into a thriller, then shift it into political drama, then develop a cop buddy story, then ...

You get the idea.

It's perfectly possible to write like that, of course. No one is stopping you from writing anything, especially in these brave days of self-publishing. But successes with that kind of genre merry-go-round are going to be rare. You need great skill to negotiate the comic and the dramatic, to keep romance bubbling away while exploring political issues, and so on. Great skill only comes with experience, the kind of writing experience that tells you not to bother in the first place. And if you did bother, you'd need a brave - or foolish - agent to take it on.

The way I see it, novels are like fruit. And they enjoy the same limitations and structural integrity as fruit. So a novel that begins as an apple should end as an apple.

Novels are like apples. An apple never becomes a banana halfway through being eaten.

A novel that starts life as an apple should not turn yellow and become a banana by act two, or morph gently into a mango in the closing chapters.

This does not mean we cannot mix genres. Not in the slightest. A pineapple is a mixed genre fruit. But it's still a pineapple. It doesn't forget which two genres make up its DNA, if you see what I mean. It doesn't add a third one as an experiment just because things are getting boring.

So even if she does not make a plan, the commercial writer needs to know, at least at a subconscious level, what kind of novel she is writing. And though she may not know the exact details of the journey at the outset, she must understand that it cannot suddenly become a different category of novel, or not without risk to its integrity. Romances need to stay romantic. Thrillers scare you till the end. And baddies always get punished, even if it takes a ten book series to catch them.

I write mixed genre novels: this is an historical paranormal romance. But I planned it that way and did not deviate from its exact parameters. It started as mixed genre, and ended the same way.

To steer the story to its conclusion without mishap, you only need to keep chanting, 'Steady as she goes.' And if it feels like your romance or historical is flagging in that so-called soggy middle, don't reach for the hand grenade or the unexpected kidnap. It's not a touch of international thriller you need to excite the reader. It's electric prose. It's a feeling of inevitability. It's narrative drive. It's brilliantly illuminated characters. It's good old-fashioned excellence in writing. Nothing more.

QUESTION: Have you ever written a book that began one way, then unexpectedly turned into something quite different, and what did you do about it? Was it successful?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Week Twelve: The Company of Writers

RNA Conference 2014. Yes, that's me in the foreground. Photo by Anita Chapman.

My apologies for the late posting of this blog. I recently returned from a long weekend at the annual conference of the Romantic Novelists Association and have been recovering. Since the conference is what's uppermost in my mind right now, my blog post this week will be about the key reasons for novelists to attend a writers' conference, plus some associated thoughts.

Richard Lee (Waterstones, at podium) and Matt Bates (WHS Travel) talk sales to a packed lecture theatre, RNA Conference 2014

Conference-going can be exhausting. It does not have to be, you can always duck out and spend a few hours alone in your room, or go for a walk or drive to clear your head. But I spend so much of my life locked in a small room with my thoughts, I prefer to suffer exhaustion and not waste a moment of the conference experience napping or walking. When I am not much older, I suspect slipping away to my room will become a necessary part of staying the course, because it is genuinely tiring to get up early, go to bed late, move relentlessly from one session to coffee break to another session, chat with fellow writers, and perhaps attend the odd kitchen party, all for two to three days in a row. But for now, I'm still pushing through the pain barrier to make the most of my time there, albeit with a rictus grin on my face ...

So here are the chief reasons why a writer, especially one new to the industry and hoping to be published in the future, should attend a writers' conference. At a conference, we can:

  • Swop horror stories about writing and publishing
  • Allow ourselves fresh hope
  • Develop a feel for the market
  • Take the opportunity to show our work to agents and editors
  • Bare our souls
  • Drink deep
  • Take (and compare) notes
  • Learn from experts
  • Give presentations and share our knowledge
  • Become part of a community
Coffee time chat with fellow authors, RNA Conference 2014

At this year's RNA conference there was much talk of 'the death of the midlist', i.e. the increasing erosion of those writers and titles which are not expected to sell mega bucketloads, but normally sell a reasonable amount, and so get published but do not enjoy the kind of massive promotional push from their publishers that a writer such as Stephen King or Philippa Gregory might expect. (Ironically the kind of writers who desperately need that push are the ones who rarely get it, the financial risk being considered too steep.) Advances for midlisters are dwindling along with their sales, and publishers are dropping huge swathes of midlist authors in favour of brand-new faces or top-notch commercial hits. This cull is not about talent or market fit. It's simply about money and there not being enough of it to go round. So the new and the sure-fire get it instead of the cannon fodder.

There is no easy answer to this dwindling of earnings. Some writers have called for publishers to pay their authors larger percentages as royalties, and there is a case for this; the 8-10% we traditionally enjoy on paperback retail sales was fine back in the days before the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, when discounted sales were not permitted and most successful writers made a good living. Now though, with piracy and supermarket discounts and multi-media competition working against us, and our much-beleaguered books selling in far smaller numbers at knock-down prices, that meagre 10% barely allows us to earn out our advances - if we got one at all. Digital royalties are improving and approaching 30-40% in most places now, but of course digital prices are even lower. So we lose out both ways.

A drinks reception sponsored by Kindle Direct Publishing: some famous faces here ...

Conferences are places where the open discussion of such problems can happen in a wide arena packed with industry die-hards and newbies alike, some traditionally published, some self-published, some unpublished but ever-hopeful of success. But success has become a moveable feast. Success for writers used to be six-figure contracts and all the trimmings: book launches, posh dinners with agents, international tours. Now, for the midlist at least - the stalwart foot soldiers of publishing - it has become about selling enough to stay in work, even selling enough to stay alive. And it feels as though nearly everyone below superstar level is suffering, even those who seemed unassailable ten years ago.

So a conference not only gives us a chance to talk to our heroes and press our latest manuscript into the hands of agents and editors, it also allows us to discuss these industry failings en masse, and hopefully suggest remedies to each other.

Not that the remedy to publishing's current sickness lies in our hands alone. But we can suggest ways to continue making money from our art, to diversify, to seek new outlets for our writing, perhaps to leap into the wind and become publishers ourselves. And even though the outlook is bleak, there is still the solace of the company of other writers, other creative souls trapped in the same impasse, passing the bottle at some late night party in student accommodation ... just like the old days.

QUESTION: do you attend writers' conferences, and what do you hope to gain from them? Has attendance at a conference ever improved your writing and forwarded your career?

Monday, 7 July 2014

Week Eleven: Good versus Evil Characters

Is Heathcliff evil?
Here's a strange thing about characters and readers. Readers tend to want main characters to be nice and to do the 'right thing', so they can identify with them while they read, and so feel nice themselves. To assure themselves that they too would do the right thing, if it came down to it. That's the theory of the main character, anyway. That as a reader you enter the skin of the narrator - usually the protagonist in today's fiction - and look out through their eyes. And if the view becomes a bit icky or disturbing or inconsistent, well, you might put that book down and tiptoe away without finishing it.

In nineteenth century fiction, writers could often get away with problematic and even downright evil main characters by telling their story via an innocent - and therefore untarnished - narrator. Wuthering Heights, for instance. But secondhand narration has gone out of fashion, along with the epistolary style - telling a story through a series of letters - and apart from bestselling gems like Bridget Jones' Diary and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, readers prefer straight narration to other ways of telling a story.

As a writer - this applies more to genre fiction than literary fiction, but is still apparent even among the literati - you are being constantly urged by editors to make your main characters nicer. To stop them sleeping with the wrong people, stealing, telling fibs, murdering their loved ones. This is not so difficult for writers who tell their stories within a fictional corridor where 'baddies' rarely do anything worse than give you a bad job reference or steal your boyfriend. But even within that limitation the concept of character morality is equally as valid as it is for a crime novel or historical drama, where you might reasonably expect the most gruesome murders, kidnappings, massacres, beheadings. The parameters change, but the reality remains: main characters must do the right thing, and do it consistently, without ambiguity.

His Dark Lady: Shakespeare's mistress
So how to cope when your story demands a morally questionable action on the part of your main character, but even as you are writing the scene you can hear your editor's polite refusal in your head, or beyond that, some reviewer's outraged objection? I have had some rather cross responses to my portrayal of Shakespeare in my Lucy Morgan trilogy, with reviewers complaining that it is 'unfair' to suggest WS slept with other people behind his wife's back - even though his sonnets and his long absence from the marital bed hardly paint a picture of fidelity. And in this case, there is something more to be said about tarnishing the reputation of a long-dead person - a national hero, no less - with scurrilous suggestions of immoral goings-on backstage that no one at this remove of time can ever possibly prove. Or not without a time machine.

But all this begs questions about our role as authors, and our responsibilities both to readers and to fiction as a whole. Should we pay lip-service to some unlikely and unspoken ideal of morality in order to avoid causing controversy, or write what we feel to be the truth in our story (fiction should represent 'truth' to the writer at least, if to nobody else) and accept that our choices may be unpopular with some readers? And if we do shrug off the limitations of morality and pursue a dangerous fictional truth, what have we achieved besides making our books uncomfortable to read and probably unsaleable?

Why not just throw up our hands and accept that what the majority of our readers want - even in a crime novel - is a consistent world with nice, unthreatening main characters, where 'bad' people are punished and right nearly always triumphs?

Well, that's the wise thing to do. We all want to be read, after all. Read and paid.

But people are complicated. And characters are people, or ought to be. Characters should be capable of possessing both good and evil, humour and horror, love and hate, and above all they should be allowed to hold conflicting opinions. To be contrary. To fall in love with two different people at the same time. To say they want one thing but actually go after something completely different. To be human. This is where publishers suppress more demanding fiction. Being experienced in the realities of selling books, they rightly know that the vast majority of readers dislike too much complexity and can handle only a small amount of contrariness. So they insist that characters should be consistent, should be strictly one thing or another, so that we can all sell books and make a reasonable living.


Show me a person who is genuinely consistent, and I'll bet you it's a corpse.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn: an ambiguous read.

I'm still hoping that fiction - which moves like the sea in waves of fashion - will shift eventually into a place where inconsistency is the new gold standard. Where writers are praised for creating deeply ambiguous characters capable of holding two diametrically opposed beliefs simultaneously without risking the loss of internal logic. Where readers fight to be confused and manipulated and lied to. And not patronised. That may be why Gillian Flynn's 'Gone Girl' was so popular, even though many found it an uncomfortable read. Because in this age of superfast broadband and social media our view of life and morality is becoming both more simplistic and more sophisticated, more clear-cut and more ambiguous, and we are beginning to demand fiction that reflects our own uncertainties in the face of this new, constantly shifting, inherently contradictory social morality. 

QUESTION: Should fictional main characters be nicer and more consistent than real people? If so, why?

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Week Ten: Planning Your Novel

For me, not planning my novels before writing them would be like marrying someone I had never met.
A novel starts with a single idea. Sometimes a line or two of dialogue. Most often for me it's a visual scene in my head. Two lovers parting at dawn. A man creeping through the darkness, a knife in his hand. A body twisting slowly in the wind ...

From that idea or line or concept or image springs the plan. The blueprint of a novel.

Some writers - probably shaking their heads over my foolishness at this very moment - eschew the plan. They are 'pantsers', i.e. they write by the seats of their pants. They have no desire to know how their novel ends; that would spoil the surprise! So they sit down and write out that line of dialogue or that image in their head, and whizz, they're away, thumping the keys, page after page until they discover who dunnit.

I can't speak for those people, as I have never done that. Or at least not with any success. For me, things go badly awry when I attempt to write without making a plan. For years I wrote literary-style novels that meandered this way and that, and were either unfinished or became curiously flat and lost in the end stages compared to the great energy and promise of their opening chapters.

Then I fell on hard times, and like many writers, turned to pulp fiction to scratch a living.

The discipline of writing pulp fiction to a deadline has always been a fantastic training ground for writers ...

Writing pulp fiction was my great salvation as a novelist. The money was not wonderful, and neither were the novels themselves, but it was work I could easily do at home while breastfeeding baby twins.

The parameters were fairly narrow: not formulaic, per se, but certainly there were strict expectations about length and content. And deadlines were tough. Having only 8-10 weeks in which to write an 85,000 word novel was not unusual. So I learned in a hurry how to plan and structure one of these novels so it would not fall apart in the middle. And my editors wanted - demanded, in fact! - a synopsis before they would commission a new book from me. So I would plan the novel from start to finish over a few days, then write a shiny one or two page synopsis to hook them into offering for it. Then the finished book had to match the expectations set up by this synopsis, of course, so it would morph into a working outline for me to follow as well as a selling document.

After years of drifting along fruitlessly in a literary dream, writing a novel became all about structure: beginning, middle, end; goal, obstacle, resolution; trigger, disaster, success.

In basic terms, your main character enters the first scene in one situation, then turns in a different direction because of some triggering action or event. A new goal has been set for them: win the lover's heart, rescue the hostage, save the world, or perhaps just survive a series of dangerous obstacles. These obstacles need to behave like a crescendo: each is more dangerous than the last, until the ultimate test is faced. In some genres, they call this 'the dark moment', the point at which things seem to be going the heroine's way at last, and then abruptly, a mistake is made, a baddy comes back to life, and all hope is lost.

Our intrepid hero and heroine, braving the whirlpool .... James Gillray: Britannia between Scylla & Charybdis.

As writers we have to steer our characters through the whirlpool of this 'dark moment' and out the other side into catharsis, to sail on into the future, all questions answered, all loose threads drawn up and satisfactorily resolved.

At some level at least, your plan needs to represent the successive stages of this archetypal story. You may be quite mechanical about it, estimating chapter length and events within each chapter, or chart graphs on a whiteboard or a series of sticky Post-It notes. Or you may dash off a loose plan on the back of an envelope, then pin it above your desk - or chuck it in the bin. Whatever works for you is best. But if it's not working, you may want to try another method. I highly recommend the whiteboard and stickies route. I have a thought, scribble it on a stickie, then push it onto the wall next to my desk while I work. It saves having to reach for a notebook, then recall which notebook and where I put it.

The trick is remembering to check your stickies occasionally. Not find them after you've finished the novel, and think, ah ...

Every story has a shape, a 'story arc' that exists in the head long before it exists on paper. For truly massive, multiple-character novels, this shape can be horrendously complex to plot out, taking in many different events in any number of characters' lives, so their high points and low points all coincide to create a really strong climax.

The important point of planning is to establish that arc in your subconscious, so while you're typing away furiously late at night, lost in a character's struggle, some deep-buried part of your brain is remembering that story arc and instinctively laying it down and sticking to it as each scene unfolds.

But if you really can't face the idea of knowing in advance how your novel will end, there's always the no-planning, 'just type Chapter 1 and start writing' approach. Good luck with that!

QUESTION: are you a planner or a pantser?

Monday, 23 June 2014

Week Nine: Juggling Pseudonyms

Increasingly, writers are being asked to split themselves in two. Or three, or four. Or five.

Writing as schizophrenia: the freedoms and hazards of the multiple-pseudonym approach.

I'm not talking about being a writer and also having to develop the skills of a marketing and promotional campaign manager, public speaker, social media guru and whatever else lies ahead for us in this increasingly beleaguered profession. I'm talking about the need to write different genres under different names.

For the uninitiated, this may seem like nonsense. Stick to one name, and publish whatever you like under it. Well, it's an option. But because of the way the human psyche works, or perhaps because of the way publishing has worked for the past few hundred years, a writer tends to be associated with a certain kind of publication. So let's say you have always written crime fiction, then suddenly produce something different - say, historical romance - under the same name, you are likely to land yourself in trouble.

Firstly, you will annoy your loyal readership by producing something that nonplusses them. Secondly, you will annoy your new readers who, loving your fabulous romance, order some of your backlist only to find themselves reading crime fiction.

By Joanne Rowling, aka J.K. Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith

This may be one possible reason J.K. Rowling chose to publish her new crime novels as Robert Galbraith (the fact that male writers often reach a wider readership and are more likely to be nominated for literary prizes and win them is a whole other kettle of publishing fish).

So you say, right, my writing name will be Jane Acrostic for crime, and Jane (or Joe) Bloggs for romance.

Then you realise the awful truth.

Because it doesn't stop there, at the choice of a pen-name. All writers are now expected to promote themselves wildly and without shame, like people who leave saucy business cards in phone boxes. If they don't, and subsequently fail to sell, or even if they do and subsequently fail to sell, they may end up without a publisher.

So both these writers - Jane Acrostic and Jane/Joe Bloggs - need separate Twitter accounts. And Facebook accounts. And probably email accounts. And blogs. And reader lists. And marketing plans. And bloggers to reach out to.

Some writers plough on and write in other genres under a third or fourth pseudonym. The sky's the limit if you are a flexible enough writer, and have the time and patience to tweet and blog under a gazillion names.

You could keep stories under each pen-name in separate notebooks or doc folders, to avoid confusion.

In this cannon fodder-rich, advance-poor world of books, you may find yourself split another way: between traditional publishing and self-publishing. You may be an established traditional novelist with flagging returns who chooses to self-publish their rights-reverted backlist. Or you may be unable to make ends meet on the advance offered by your traditional publisher, so have to moonlight as Juliet Boobs on Smashwords or Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, tossing off a quick sexy read every few weeks to draw in a few extra pounds to feed the electricity meter. Or maybe you got funnelled into writing one kind of book early on, and have always yearned to write something totally different.

So let's say you choose to go down this route, writing in several different genres. How might it work?

I have done this myself, writing historical and YA fiction as Victoria Lamb and steamy historical romance as Elizabeth Moss, both for traditional publishers, not to mention a few other names that collectively bring home the bacon. My brother tells me this is known as a 'portfolio career' in music, which is his field. I know how it works for me. But everyone is different. I shall describe my own experience here, and hope others may comment on this post to share their experiences too.

By me
Also by me

First, you need to discuss a change of genre with your agent and/or editor, if you have one. They will probably be resistant; it's hard to establish a writer's name in the first place, let alone TWO names. But let's assume your first name is flagging a bit, and they are less hard to persuade. Or you are 'between publishers' and free to relaunch your career. Unless you plan to self-publish - in which case you might want to consider making writerly friends within the new genre and finding someone who might advise you on a quid pro quo basis - then you will probably need to produce a large sample of the proposed manuscript and a synopsis, to indicate ability to work in this new genre. You may even need to produce the entire book before a contract will be agreed. (Some hard grafters do this every time, though I try to avoid it at all costs. There's always another bill waiting to be paid ...)

Once a change of genre is approved - and this is far from certain, publishers being shy of change at the moment and inclined not to take risks - you will need to discuss your new name.

Yes, this is by me too

Some writers - like Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks - have chosen to use the same name, but stuck an initial in the mix for the new genre. I personally find that confusing, but that's just me. You might want to use another related name, or something personal to you - Lamb was my mother's pseudonym, Moss my first married surname, and Victoria and Elizabeth are my middle names. Or you could be totally cynical and choose something that fits the new genre: something hard or sinister for crime, something sexy and enticing for romance. Never forget, your mission is to build an entirely new persona, and your pseudonym will be at the forefront of that effort.

By my mum, Charlotte Lamb

If you find it hard to juggle several writing names, get organised. Use whiteboards or corkboards, and list projects, accounts and contacts under each name. Be careful with online passwords for email/blogs etc; you're supposed to have different ones for each account, and not keep a written record, so make sure each password is memorable for that name, or use some Master Password software to help you. I frequently use Twitter on iPad, which allows me to keep all my Twitter accounts permanently logged in and switch between them with a couple of flicks, so I can post easily on different accounts within a space of seconds. TweetDeck also allows this, though I find it unwieldy with more than three or four names, as it lists accounts horizontally instead of on separate flickable pages. You may want to see what works best for you.

Develop a solid persona for each name, and stick to it wherever possible. I tend to leap between names on social media, as so many people know I have several, there's no point hiding the fact, plus I find it amusing to troll myself under another name. But you may prefer to draw a strict line between them. Certainly it is less confusing for readers if you keep each pseudonym in a separate 'box' and never mix them up. I find it a touch dishonest to create totally new biogs for each name, but that's only because so many people know who I really am in person. If you're keeping them separate, and will never meet anyone in the flesh, you can invent a whole new life for your biog. Just make sure you don't 'come out' later and risk alienating people who only read your books because they wrongly believed you were from Basingstoke, or a former concert violinist, or a devout Anglican.

By - you guessed it - me!
If you choose to do a public event under one pen-name, and are reasonably well-known under another, be aware you may be exposed at that point. People take photos, and innocently blog or tweet them, unaware of your guilty secret. So if you don't want your trad publishers or your jam-making Quaker romance fans to know you also wrote that smutty tale of swinging couples, don't turn up at the London Fetish Fair to promote it - unless clad in a concealing gimp mask.

Decide early on how much promo you can manage for each name, and which name will benefit most from each kind of promotion. Book marketing is not 'one size fits all.' To sell in a new genre, you usually need to do some research: find out where your main readership is likely to be hanging out on social media, or sites like Goodreads, then target it. Make as many friends as you can, insinuate yourself into groups, copy what other writers do. Yes, it's a bit creepy. But you can relax somewhat once the initial push is done. You just need to get your new pseudonym known and accepted in the best places for your book, and after that, you can concentrate on the new books you're writing and on building a career in that genre.

And if you think all that sounds like bloody hard work, it is. Welcome to my day.

QUESTION: Do you have more than one pen-name, and how do you cope with the separate promo? Or do you have a question about writing under more than one name?