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?