Tuesday, 30 March 2010

TO HIRE AN EDITOR OR NOT

Stupendous good sense here from Rachelle Gardner. I cannot exaggerate how much I agree with everything she says in this article. Please read it.

Let me highlight some bits for you:
"Using a freelance editor can be a great idea - if you use it as a learning experience." [Her bold, but I'd have bolded it, too.]

"It can be very helpful for an editor to give you an evaluation of your first few chapters, so that you can then rework the entire manuscript according to what you learned. It's a terrific learning experience and can help you grow as a writer. It's almost like having a writing tutor."
I couldn't agree more - and it's exactly what I do with manuscript appraisals for Pen2Publication: I work up detailed edits, with comments and explanations, for a section of the book, so that the writer can see the problems and rectify them elsewhere, and not make the same mistakes in the future. Good editing is not about spelling and punctuation but about all the much more fundamental aspects of being a writer.

Rachelle says:
"Many agents and editors are uncomfortable with writers having too much outside editorial help prior to being contracted, because it can mask a writer's true abilities. I'd hate to get you a 3-book contract with a publisher based on that stellar first book, only to find out that you had a ton of help with it and are not able to deliver that quality of book a second time."
This is the point about getting any kind of help before submitting your work: it needs to be your work, not someone else's, and if you do not understand the suggested changes so clearly that you can implement them yourself, then this is going to bode ill for the future.

There is absolutely no shame in hiring an editor, consultant or tutor, as long as you a) choose the right one and b) more importantly, learn from it and use it properly, as a way of curing your weaknesses, not covering them up.

(Unfortunately, I cannot at the moment take on any new clients for Pen2Publication, as I'm fully booked till June. Meanwhile, I am prepared to run a very small number of Submission Spotlights. If you're interested in putting a piece of your submission up for public scrutiny, please email me at writingtutor@hotmail.co.uk. It doesn't cost anything, but you must be prepared for honest reactions from total strangers. Please see the label "Submission Spotlights" on the list on the right before contacting me. The rules for these Spotlights are here.)

Sunday, 28 March 2010

THE GREENGROCERS' APOSTROPHE'S SOLVED

As in The apostrophe of greengrocers IS solved. That is the only meaning of that sentence written in that way. A word (in this case apostrophes) can only have an apostrophe if it "owns" something that follows or if something is missed out (in this case the first letter of is).

I could equally well have written greengrocer's as greengrocers', because it's up to me whether I mean one or several. This is all about meaning and clarity, not obfuscatory rules. (Yes, I know, we could probably manage without apostrophes at all, but since we have them, let's get 'em right.)

Several of you have asked for a post on apostrophes. Oooh, the pleasure! I haven't done this since I was an English teacher. Apart from the times I taught my daughters. Forcibly. While serving them fish fingers.

By the way, it will be embarrassing if there are typos in this post, especially if they are apostrophe-related! But I can't check it properly until it goes public, and I'm busy surrounded by boxes and may not have internet access. Fingers crossed...

APOSTROPHE RULES
First, forget about "before the s or after the s". We will not be thinking like that, because that way confusion lies. The letter s has absolutely nothing to do with apostrophes. OK? Thinking of s is what has led so many astray.

There are only two reasons to use an apostrophe:

1. ABBREVIATION - WHEN TWO WORDS BECOME ONE or when something is missed out of a word (though many such omissions are nowadays not represented by apostrophes)

Read these examples, because each shows a different aspect:
  • didn't, can't, mustn't etc - you know this, and I don't need to explain oddities like won't
  • It's a lovely day - BUT NB NB NB NB NB: it's ONLY HAS AN APOSTROPHE WHEN SOMETHING HAS BEEN MISSED OUT, ie when it stands for it has or it is. NEVER ELSEWHERE
  • The dog's going to eat its dinner - because dog's stands for The dog IS going...
Some things to consider:

Nowadays, generally speaking, you do not normally need an apostrophe to denote letters missed from the beginning or end of a word, but you do when TWO become one, such as can't - originally can not

In the old days, any missing letters needed to be indicated by either an apostrophe or a full-stop, but not any more. For example, 'phone is now just phone. (There's nothing wrong with 'phone, but it's not needed.) Photo would certainly not be photo'. Therefore, photos* would NOT have an apostrophe. If in doubt, leave it out. These vagaries are a matter of common practice.

*I don't know why this troubles people but please remember that you do NOT just add an apostrophe to denote a plural. The s does that all by itself. This is the problem that greengrocers have. Apples, bananas, peas, etc. No apostrophes. Not unless you're selling the apples' possessions.

CD is one that gets people tangled. Originally it would have been C.D. and you could still write this. Would you say CD'? No, so don't write CD's. (You'd write the CDs' cases though, following the possession rules below - as in the cases of the CDs.)

The most important thing to realise with plurals is that if you would not have had an apostrophe for the singular, you do not for the plural. Because apostrophes play no part in forming a plural word.

20s, 1960s, 80s etc do not have an apostrophe because there is no abbreviation going on.

Some unusual abbreviations, such as 'em for them, would have an apostrophe, simply as a favour to the reader, who might otherwise be confused.

To repeat: nowadays, generally speaking, you do not normally need an apostrophe to denote letters missed from the beginning or end of a word, unless it's required for clarity, but you do when TWO become one, such as can't - orginally can not.

2. POSSESSION - ONLY WHEN THE "POSSESSOR" COMES IMMEDIATELY BEFORE THE THING POSSESSED.

And the only thing to remember about the position of the apostrophe is that it comes immediately after the "possessor". So, if the possessor is plural, put the apostrophe after the plural form.

So, the dog's / dogs' dinner:
The dog's dinner - the thing possessing the dinner is the dog (one dog) so the apostrophe goes after dog.
The dogs' dinner - the things possessing the dinner are the dogs (more than one dog) so the apostrophe goes after the dogs.

If you remember to think "after the possessor", you won't have a problem with, for example, the Joneses' house = the house of the Joneses. The Joneses are the possessors.

Exceptions? One exception and one extra point.

EXCEPTION. These words never, ever, ever have an apostrophe, even though they look as though they should**:
theirs, ours, yours, hers (or, more obviously, his and whose)

Never. Got it? Don't worry about why - just remind yourself that the word mine doesn't have an apostrophe so why should theirs etc? What, because there's an s at the end of theirs? So? We're not thinking about s, remember? S has nothing to do with apostrophes. As I said.

And remember: it's ONLY has an apostrophe for abbreviation - it is or it has

** Technically, these are not even exceptions: in fact, since the object possessed does not come immediately after the word, there's no need for an apostrophe, within the rules. You don't say yours house, do you?

EXTRA POINT. Sometimes you have to notice that the "thing possessed" is omitted, or "understood". For example, I'm going round to Jane's. This has an apostrophe because we mean Jane's place or Jane's house. Another example would be, This is Sally's, not Joan's, book.

CAUTION - be careful to remember the rule with irregular plurals. This is another reason why you must focus on "after the possessor". For example, the children's party or the people's princess - both follow the rule as long as you are not doing that "before the s or after the s thing."

That's it in terms of rules. But of course, that's not quite the end....

...because there are some occasions when the rules are hard to interpret. Or even a bit fluffy and annoying.

A few examples:
1. three weeks' time - because we mean a period of time of three weeks BUT we say in three weeks with NO apostrophe
2. for goodness' sake - because it is for the sake of goodness
3. Accounts Department does not need one, because Accounts is being used as an adjective, describing the department, not indicating possession
4. three hours late - does not need one, because late is not a noun and can't be said to be owned*** by anything.

[***Thanks to eagle-eyed Dave Bartlett for correcting my confused brain there.]
 

Sometimes it's entirely up to the person creating the phrase. For example, the people of The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook decided that they meant many writers and artists; but the people of The Writer's Handbook decided to refer to one writer. Both equally correct.

James' or James's?? Bit of an argument there. Usage tends to favour James' in the US and James's in the UK. No doubt this will change and I wonder in which direction...?

And there are times when it comes down to usage and all you can do is look the phrase up on a reputable website and see what the experts say: there's no way I can go through everything here. If in doubt, check.

Do you want to do a quiz? There's one at the bottom of this article here, which also, I see, gives a clear list of apostrophe rules. Between my explanations (especially the "after the possessor" rule) you should have it cracked. There's some nifty footwork on gerunds, too.

Now, I know I haven't answered every possible question, but it would get too bitty. Get your head round the rules first and use sensible internet searching for individual phrases that pose you a problem.

Here are some more resources that seem good at a quick glance:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A790175
http://www.eng-lang.co.uk/apostrophe_rules.htm
http://www.grammarbook.com/default.asp

I also just came across this recent Litopia podcast - I haven't listened but it's Eve Harvey so it will be good.

That's it. You're armed. Go out and prepare to laugh at greengrocers.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

SYNOPSIS SPOTLIGHT

Remember when I used to do those Submission Spotlights? When brave blog-readers would offer part of a submission for public scrutiny and comment? As you may remember, I stopped doing them when I decided to help people more directly by setting up Pen2Publication.

Well, the other day I was contacted by a newish blog-reader, Siena, who was having problems writing a synopsis. Pen2Publication is fully booked at the moment so I couldn't suggest she use my services there but it struck me that since this is "only" a synopsis and since she said nice things to me, I could, with her permission, put the synopsis up here and hand her over to you good people for your reactions. So, I have.

Now, this is not a game, but someone's writing life we have here, so there are some rules:
  • Please respect Siena's work by making only genuine and constructive remarks.
  • Respect her copyright.
  • Siena is not presenting this as a finished draft: the whole point is that she doesn't know what is right or wrong about it. So, bear this in mind.
  • Remember that this would form part of a standard UK submission, so it would be accompanied by a covering letter and the first three chapters as a sample.
  • In your comment, please say something to indicate your experience, if any. For example, if you are an editor or a published author with some experience of the genre, please say so. If you have no special knowledge but are offering more amateur (but still very welcome) advice, say so. Just something that allows Siena to know where you are coming from, so that if, some of the remarks conflict, she can judge how to respond.
Oh, and I asked her to write me a little "pitch" - the sort of thing that would form part of the covering letter. This is so that we can get a sense of the book's style and theme, which a synopsis doesn't always indicate.

Here's her pitch. She is not asking for comments on the pitch but if you have a startlingly useful comment, I see no reason not to give it. But do remember that it would be within a covering letter and, of course, Siena will have said what genre it is... (YA, btw.)
The Phantom Prince is about being young, famous and miserable – teenagers discovering themselves in the public eye, excess, escape an impossible love across the divide of the new ‘celebrity’ class.
Since Sophie’s sister made it as an actress, her world has been divided. At home, she is responsible for paying the bills and chasing down her father’s rent check, yet in another world her sister has been casted as the lead in The Phantom Prince alongside latest poster-boy Blake Edwards; star of the ‘Moonlight Saga’ films. The worlds cross when Sophie begins a summer placement at Pinewood Studios and falls for Blake, but her sister – not one to be outshone – is not happy and when her partying grows out of control, rumours on set threaten her career. Sophie must make a choice between family and love, and decide if that love is worth the sacrifice of her anonymity for ever.
And here's the synopsis, which is what she's asking you about. It fits easily onto two sides of A4, by the way.
At 17, Sophie Heaton’s most notable achievement is being the sister of Lydia Lowe - a bona-fide A list actress and her biggest worry is how to pay the bills; having a famous sister doesn’t mean that normal problems just end. When Sophie goes to see her sister at Pinewood Studios, it isn’t to get a taste of celebrity life (though she is intrigued by her sister’s world secret world); her father’s rent cheque is weeks later, and her mother - who had never got over the divorce, spends a good part of her day in bed- aided by her bottle of sleeping pills.
It wasn’t like she expected Lydia to make everything better, empathy wasn’t exactly her forte (not when it wasn’t scripted anyway) and Sophie was used to taking care of things on her own. Her sister had moved on, moved out of the family home, even changed her last name! So when she is met with her utter indifference, it doesn’t come as a surprise. Despite this, her journey isn’t wasted. Sophie is captivated by the world of film, and in particular Blake Edwards- a mysterious actor and star of the ‘Moonlight Saga’.
Blake has had little time to get used to fame, the press say he is the latest heartthrob, battalions of teenage fans think he is their dream guy, and the director considers him the best new acting talent since Johnny Depp; but alone in his luxurious Mayfair suite, he can’t remember what normal life feels like.
For Sophie, the situation at home reaches breaking point when her father admits that there will be no more cheques. She has no other option but to go back to Pinewood and beg her sister’s help. Lydia is more than forthcoming in offering it, and taking advantage of her sister’s good spirits, Sophie asks if she can stay and help out on set.
Finally, her life begins – sure, there are coffee runs and a lot of standing around, but she’s actually at Pinewood, there are no more bills to worry about and she’s found a friend!  Amelia Brightside is the daughter of Kurt Brightside (deceased rock-star), Lilly Brightside who last she heard was still in rehab and step-daughter to the director. It is no wonder that at the end of a long week, Sophie finds herself at a loss with what to do on her day off. And OK, it isn’t exactly a co-incidence that she bumps into Blake Edwards at the National Portrait’s ‘Live Fast Die Young’ exhibition (she did kind of steal the flyer from his trailer, which might technically be kind of creepy, but its Blake Edwards for God’s sake!)
It is the simplest of boy-meets-girl stories. They got on, they had a lot in common and...Yes she was smitten but that’s normal, right? When you meet a boy you like? And with the filming moving from Pinewood to location in Dorset in a matter of days, she doesn’t have long. Sophie’s fantasy begins to unravel when she learns just how far removed their two worlds are at a cast party. She knew Blake was famous, but the press and the screaming fans were more than she’s been expecting. More worrying is the Issue of Lydia whose excess has begun to draw attention. As Amelia explains, everyone does drugs, it’s fine as long as no one knows, but people were beginning to talk. Then, her last hopes for happiness are shattered as Blake is snapped leaving the party with her sister. A phone-call from Blake the next morning explains the situation, but Sophie has little time to be relieved. Lydia is in trouble, Blake found her five sheets to the wind and whisked her away before tongues began to wag. He forces Sophie to face up to Lydia’s problem and the sisters talk frankly for the first time in years. Her head full of other worries, Sophie is surprised when she is asked to go to Dorset with the cast...to actually accompany Blake, as his assistant. It is obvious to both her and Amelia that the request could only have come from one person.
A long drive north brings them together and feelings are re-kindled as Sophie enjoys Blake’s growing attentions; but he is confusing and indecisive, suspecting that Sophie has fallen for the public image, rather than the real him. He pushed her away, and Sophie- used to being the plain sister - believes herself unworthy, something which isn’t helped by her discovery that it was Lydia and not Blake who requested her presence in Dorset.
The loss of Sophie- the only person in his who does not judge him, and his only link to the real world – effects Blake more than he expected and when he makes his feelings clear, it looks like Sophie can finally be happy, but Lydia has other plans. Her condition deteriorates and she finds herself at the same time reliant on her sister and envious of the attention she receives. Lydia convinces Blake that it would be in Sophie’s best interest to be kept away from the media attention, and agreeing with her, Blake leaves Sophie with little more than a note explaining that he is returning to London, alone.
Heartbroken, Sophie tries to piece her life back together, but when your first love is Blake Edwards, getting away isn’t easy. She takes to her bed, and when Lydia finds her with a handful of their mother’s pills, she finally begins to take responsibility for the situation she has brought about. With Lydia in charge, the mother is sent away to get better and Sophie takes comfort in a world of credit cards and designer dresses, but Lydia continues to party and rumours of her breakdown finally begin to affect her career.
The Phantom Prince is premiering in the West End and Lydia asks her sister to go as her date. She is  confident that the new designer- clad Sophie is over Blake and sees no threat in the meeting, but she has underestimated the connection. Blake’s  is confused when he sees Sophie in front of the cameras, he confronts her and she learns of Lydia’s part in the break-up.  The lovers make a run for it, leaving the celebrity circus behind. Their exit down the red carpet is captured by a shower of flashing lights and no one notices that Lydia has stumbled out of the screening, determined to find her sister and explain. She finds a row of parked black cars, waiting to take the guests to the after-party. One of the cars is empty, keys still in the ignition and Lydia falls behind the wheel ; drunk. When Blake’s Porsche pulls up outside the Heaton house, Sophie immediately knows something is wrong, there isn’t usually that much traffic, and the police cars could mean anything, but she knows before she sees the wreck , that her sister is inside.
It has been almost a year since the accident. Sophie has moved to California with her mother to start a degree at UCLA. She hasn’t seen Blake since that night, well, aside from on TV. Sophie understands- she told him she needed to be alone and she thought he seemed relieved; being associated with the accident could bring negative PR. She’d caused him enough trouble. Amelia comes to visit, and Sophie arrives at the restaurant excited to see her friend. What she wasn’t expecting was Blake to be there too, his feelings for her, unchanged.  Sophie and Blake decides to give it another go, a new start in a new city, but being on the arm of the hottest actor in town will undoubtedly bring new problems.
Over to you - be kind! I hope to comment myself soon, but, as some of you know from Twitter, the mother of all house moves has begun...

Monday, 22 March 2010

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

An awesome post over on Editorial Ass the other day had me cheering in my seat, somewhat inappropriately as I was on a train at the time. She (I always assume Ed Ass is a she) makes some essential points about the panic and stress that sets in while authors are submitting their work, warning that this panic and stress can cause poor decisions and end in inferior publication.

EA says:
"It's better not to be published at all than to get published in an inferior way. Doors begin to close if you try to take shortcuts. Instead, take your time to do things right. Accept no compromises. You will be much unhappier with a published book that has gone awry than with an unpublished book that still has potential."
Thing is, the zen which EA asks us to conjure up is nigh on possible, and she acknowledges that it is at least very difficult. As writers desperate to get our writing out there, we desire publication and we desire it NOW. Or sooner if at all possible.

But every bit of her advice is absolutely right. Difficult or impossible though it is, we must put that burning desire aside in favour of another burning desire: to get the right book published in the right way. Successful publishing is not just about this one book: it's about you as a writer, and you will carry your first book with you for the rest of your writing life. Yes, if you go on to be stunningly successful, you may not mind too much, but a poor first book nowadays can make it difficult to go forward, partly because poor sales figures can no longer be hidden. Thanks, Nielsen Bookbloodyscan.

EA says, crucially:
"Book publication is affected by many factors. A book may deserve to get published, but the market may be wrong. A book idea may be wonderful, but the execution may not be really up to snuff and need more work. The author may be a fantastic writer, but maybe this particular manuscript isn't the best book on its own, or maybe it's a good book but not a good debut. In all of these cases, if the author pushes, pushes, pushes for publication no matter what, they will damage both their future career as a writer and their relationship with their art."
Those are the very good reasons why your very good work may not have achieved publication. Yes, it's maddeningly, teeth-gnashingly, finger-chewingly, gut-wrenchingly horrible when we can't get published for these reasons. (Remember that I have been there: 21 years of anger and desperation gnawed at me while I failed to be published but somehow succeeded in smiling at the world and pretending nothing was wrong.)

The problem nowadays, more than ever, is that it's actually easier than ever to get published - if we include being published badly. What do we mean by "published badly"? There are two main ways:
  • when a genuine publisher doesn't know what it's doing. Anyone can set up a publishing company and it's a very laudable thing to do, but it's a case of Author Beware. If it's brand new, what relevant background and back-up does the publisher have? How do they plan to get your book into shops? If it's not brand new, what sales figures, reviews and exposure did they achieve for previous publications? How aggressive are they in the industry? (They need to be. An example of a good small and newish publisher - about five years old now, I think - is Strident Publishing. Strident by name and strident by nature! I know Keith Charters well and he's tireless in selling his authors' books and has a business background behind him, as well as being an author himself.) Crucially, ask about copy-editing, proof-reading and design processes - does your proposed publisher outsource and pay properly for this?
  • when a company masquerading as a publisher is actually part of the self-pubbing industry - there's nothing wrong with decent self-pubbing, as long as it isn't masquerading as something else. (Google the name of the company plus the word "self-publishing"; and, just in case, with the word "scam"...) Too many authors don't know the difference and then laud their "publishing deal" as though something more had happened than that they'd paid for a service. Note: if you pay anything for publication or have to sell your own books rather than receiving a % on each book sold by the company, you have not "been published"; you have paid for publication. This is not just a matter of semantics - I explain below why you should be careful.
But does this matter? Can't my first published book just be a toe-in-the-water thing, an experiment, a stepping-stone to future success? After all, it will show publishers that I'm serious, won't it?

Only if the book is a success. And I cannot tell you how unlikely this is. Have you any idea how hard the book-selling process is? It is hard enough for big publishers with their sales forces and marketing departments to achieve good sales, and often they fail. But it is far harder for anyone else. On the rare occasions when you hear of a runaway success from self-publishing or from a publisher who doesn't know what he's doing, there's always something untold in the story: for example, the author may have put many thousands of his own money, or at the very least had huge chutzpah, annoyed the hell out of every bookseller and librarian on the planet and had no time for writing or living. Or the author already had a background in sales / marketing and was perfectly willing to spend time and money using it. And certainly the author had some way of engineering many events to sell the book. Runaway success like this is enormously rare, which is why you hear the same-old-same-old few examples trotted out every time. I'm NOT saying don't self-publish, but I am saying go into it with eyes wide open because success comes rarely and at a huge price - if you're a writer, you are likely to love writing, not selling. And you're likely not to understand the business. If you do, and you do prefer selling to writing, and you have lots of money to invest in paying for help, fine.

But what if I don't mind about small sales? I just want my book out there. I need to see it between lovely covers, in a shop. Pleeeeeease!

I know, I know. Trust me, I do so know how you feel. But another aspect of bad publishing is that it probably won't be between lovely covers. It will be between crappy covers, looking all limp with cheap paper and print that goes too close to the edge because the publisher was cutting costs. It will be full of typos and weird fonts and widows and orphans and peculiar layouts. And the back cover blurb will make everyone laugh, for the wrong reasons. (I have several examples on my shelves, sent to me by authors furious at what has been done to them and their beloved books by unscrupulous companies masquerading as publishers.)

Oh, and it won't be in a shop. Most books published by most publishers are not in most shops. For self-pubbers, multiply that ten-fold.

And when you then write another better book, how you will wish that the first one wasn't published! I offer you Editorial Ass's wise words again:
"Some projects, however good they are, never need to see the light of day, because they've been stepping-stones on your road to self-development. They are what will train you to write the book that really matters."
The book that really matters. Isn't that what really matters to you? The thought that the book you are trying to sell now, that you have slaved and sweated and angsted over, may not be the book that should be published, is a terribly difficult thought to bear. But the moment when you come to that decision and start another book, gently wrapping the first one up and laying it to rest with an ausible sob, could be the most important and positive moment of your writing life.

You may be interested to know that I have two such novels, and about a week ago I realised that I am now ready to write them again, and properly. I have realised how to make them work. And gosh am I glad they were not published! I shudder at the thought.

I'd also like to you to read this older, excellent post from the Kidlit people here. Please. It underlines all the above.

Now, it could be that the novel you are writing or submitting now IS fabulous and will be published well and for all the right reasons. But it is statistically more likely that it isn't and that you are still at the practising stage. Think of it as being like wanting to be a concert pianist: you wouldn't want to go on stage before you were good enough, would you? You'd wait till your teacher said you were ready. Well, consider the distinct possibility that this piece of writing is not the piece that will happily launch your career, but that it is very usefully making you better, until you will one day be ready, and then you can launch your career, knowing that you really are on the way to success and that you will look at your first published book with pride.

It comes back to my oft-repeated "simple" theory of getting published: write the right book in the right way and send it to the right publisher in the right way at the right time.

And that right time might not be now because this book might not be the right one. But it will make you better.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

ROMANCE-ANGELS-NETWORK

I always hope to be polite, despite being the Crabbit Old Bat, so I was very embarrassed when I discovered that I'd forgotten to tell you that the video about the End of Publishing was sent to me by Christine Carmichael, who follows this blog and regularly comments sensibly using the name mindmap1.

Anyway, to make up for my rudeness, I thought I'd tell you about Christine's on-line group of romance writers.

It's the Romance-angels-network, a networking group for romance writers. You need to be a member to access it but Christine says it's very easy to join for any aspiring romantic author. She says "We're a diverse, international and welcoming group with many lurkers, around 43 at the last count and thirty plus members.  We've been up and running since 19th December 2009." If you're interested, click on this link.

And now, I'm off to pack some more boxes. Nearly there!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

DELUDED COVERING LETTERS

I am re-posting this earlier post to help those of you approaching covering letters / queries for the first time. Many of you, I know, are old hands at this, but there are new writers coming along all the time and terrible mistakes are being made. I want to save you, honestly!

The covering letter will give an agent or editor the first clues (and they may not look further) that either a) you may have a great book and really know what you're doing or b) you can't write and / or are going to be too difficult to deal with, perhaps because you have completely the wrong attitude or level of understanding. If you make too many howlers in the covering letter, too many agents or editors will not look at your work. There's just too much competition out there for you to be able to afford to get this too wrong. So, while you'll hear of people getting published even after doing things wrong at this stage, that diminishes your chances hugely, especially if your book is not 100% gloriously saleable. Perfection is unattainable, but most of what agents and publishers receive is horribly short of perfection, which is why almost all of it is rejected summarily. I aim only to protect you from this.

Friday, 19 March 2010

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

I love this. It gives me hope. We have to believe this message and make it come true.

(Edited to add - I completely forgot to say who'd sent me the link: Christine Carmichael, who is the regular blog-reader and commenter "mindmap1". SO sorry, Christine - am now off to rectify this further by giving you a another plug in an upcoming post!)

By the way - you have to listen right to the end, otherwise you will entirely miss the point.




I do think the future is in our hands. Each one of us makes a difference with our small actions. It's too easy to give up and be gloomy, but inertia eventually becomes death.

So, have hope and don't let it go.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

SHORT CIRCUIT COMPETITION WINNER

Recently I talked about short story and flash fiction writing and you may remember that Vanessa Gebbie kindly offered a copy of Short Circuit to the winner of a competition.

Well, we have a winner!

Vanessa asked you to give, in no more than 50 words, "most creative/engaging way" of telling her why you wanted "to write a short story that is more than just a yarn." And there was such a lovely variety of entries. I do just love how the creative brain attacks the same task in such different ways.

Anyway, Vanessa judged the entries and came up with Kristy Price as the winner - well done, Kristy! Vanessa said she'd enjoyed reading them all but that this one stood out for her.
"I picked this one for several reasons.  Importantly, it says something about the power that short fiction has, to 'get to' the reader. The 'punch' that a good short story can deliver. Also, it is a story in itself and that made me smile. I thought it was done very well - a moment of change, a pivot, it has movement, a change in position. The dialogue is simple, easy, well done. No unnecessaries. Nice!!"
Kristy has given me permission to print her entry here:

“I’m just calling to say sorry.”
“Are you crying?”
“No...yes...”
“That’s not like you.”
“I just read this story and it kind of got to me. Made me think about things...”
“I'm surprised you had time for reading.”
“It was just this short thing.”
“Well...”
“Please.”
“...Okay. Come over.”
So, Kristy chose to turn her entry into a flash story - and she wasn't the only one to do so, but she captured Vanessa's attention and enjoyment, which is what we all try to do when we write.

Now, you know me: I never let a competition or incident go by without extracting a learning point... So, here goes.

There's an analogy between this competition decision and several writing-related things: the acceptance of a book by a publisher; the allocation of literary awards for published work; and the reading choices and comments of readers. The thing that connects them all is the high degree of subjectivity going on when a choice is made by any reader. It's inevitable, right and mysterious. Vanessa was the expert judge and this was her choice. A different reader might have made a different choice. Personally, I loved Kristy's entry, too, but the point is that you all entered, not knowing what the intended reader wanted. That's a very difficult and daunting task.

Getting published is easier than winning a competition IF you focus very clearly on your intended readers (assuming that there are enough of them and that you've judged them right). And you should know your reader because you should know what he or she reads and therefore likes. In other words, you should know what your own book is like and to whom it should appeal.

So, well done again to Kristy and good luck to all of us in snaring readers!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

CONFLICTING ADVICE

You have doubtless found conflicting advice on the internet and elsewhere. You’ll get published authors offering rules, and agents blogging about how not to approach them, and publishers saying what they’re looking for – and then all those types of people offering the opposite advice. I have contributed to this conflicting advice myself. Obviously, some of it's good and some is bad. And there are good reasons why advice may conflict.

Good reasons for conflicting advice:
•    publishing and writing are arts, not sciences. Readers (including expert ones) are human and different from each other;
•    responsible people try to offer concrete answers to the specific questions you ask, when the real answer is usually “It depends on your book.” You don’t like that answer, so we try to say yes or no. Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it’s no. Because… it depends on the book;
•    some advice is rubbish. Generally, it’s best to avoid taking too much notice of advice from people who have done nothing to prove that they know anything relevant. For example, an unpublished writer who has never worked in any relevant bit of publishing may be very well-meaning and intelligent but is not necessarily a reliable person to give you advice about anything other than how to survive being unpublished.

So, think carefully about where to get your reliable advice from. There’s no shortage of both sorts, and a little open-minded thought should help you decide who is worth listening to.

Believe me: I am by no means criticising people who do their best to share experience - it's very valuable, very often. I am simply saying that when you weigh it up, you should add in some other advice too, rather than only listening to the possibly unreliable source.


It's probably also true to say that you should always seek more than one opinion anyway, even from reliable sources.

Advice is more likely to be reliable from:
  • authors with several books published, including in your genre, unless they got there by being a celebrity;
  • people who work or have recently worked in publishing; 
  • other people with some clear reason why they know more than you.
Advice is less likely to be reliable from:
  • Everyone else. 
  • And anyone from the above list who has developed either supreme arrogance, horrible negativity or an alcohol problem. Some of them may be lovely people and well-meaning, but their advice is not reliable...

Sunday, 14 March 2010

BRIEF ABSENCE

I am away talking to Creative Writing MA students and won't be back at my stationary desk till Weds. This means I can read your comments but can't easily reply / contribute.

Normal service will resume! But I should also warn you that I am on the verge of being overwhelmed by work deadlines, impending book publication and a double house move (actually quadruple, but I'd prefer not to think it through fully...) so I may have to calm down the blogging a little over the next few weeks. Please don't disappear.

Meanwhile, below you'll find today's earlier post on punctuation. I have noted a couple of you requesting a post on apostrophes and am happy to oblige: it's one of my favourite topics, odd person that I am.

Off to pack. be good while I'm away, please. Maybe do some writing??

PUNCTUATION POINTS

Friday, 12 March 2010

OUTLINE and SYNOPSIS

A request to blog about outlines and another to blog about synopses makes it sensible to do both at the same time. Authors are often frightened about both. Bite the bullet, folks, and do it, OK?

(Erm, I have just read this post of mine from a year ago, in which I professed to be terrified of synopses. Silly me. Maybe I've learnt a lot the last year. Maybe practice makes almost perfect, or at least better, or at least less scary?)

What's the difference between an outline and a synopsis?
An outline is a detailed ...er...outline of everything that happens in your book, including sub-plots and minor characters. The purpose of the outline is to ensure that the plot all hangs together.

A synopsis is much shorter (and harder to write); it shows perfectly what the book is like and what it's about, without the need for chronological outlining. A synopsis omits sub-plots and minor characters. It tells us who the MC(s) is/are and their motivations, sets up the conflict, setting, theme, voice and denouement. The purpose of the synopsis is to sell the book and the idea, and give the agent or editor a very clear idea as to what this book is like. It must be brilliantly crafted and the more time you spend on it, the better.

When might you need them?
You are highly unlikely to need to show an outline to anyone in order to sell your book. The person who most needs an outline is ...you. Well, in my case at least, as my memory is shocking and I can't possibly remember what happens in my own books. It helps clarify the time-line, too.

You are highly likely to need a synopsis in order to sell your book. It will usually go with the covering letter and sample chapters. Even published authors are likely to need to write synopses for their editors before their editors can wave a contract under their faces.

Why do authors hate writing them?
Writing an outline is boring because you have to put so much in. Writing a synopsis is painful because you have to leave so much out. Both usually fail to convey what you really want to tell the world about your book.

So, the answer to the question, "How do I do an outline?" is: you just say what happens, in what order, giving the POV. Just lay it out as clearly as possible and be as brief as you can while fitting everything in.

And the answer to the question, "How do I do a synopsis?" is only a bit more complicated.

Top tips for synopses
  • Keep it brief. How brief? Different people will give you different rules, for one good reason: there is no single rule. If you want a rule: keep within two sides of A4, though you'll get agents / editors who don't mind if it's a bit longer. One side is likely to be preferable to two - ie, generally, the shorter the better. I have heard it said that single-spacing is fine - fine, whatever. I care not whether it is single-spaced or triple, as long as it's clear. If I was an agent I'd probably prefer double. But then, "Mine's a double" kind of rolls off my tongue. Honestly, spacing in synopses doesn't require a firm rule.
  • Make sure you say what genre it is, and what length. Mention the setting. We need to know.
  • Always make it 3rd person (but say if it's written in 1st).
  • Present usually works best for a synopsis.
  • Say what happens in the end.
  • Omit minor characters and sub-plots.
  • Don't include unanswered questions, such as, "Will Jeff save the world?"
  • Don't tell the reader how exciting / brilliant the story is.
  • Make the writing tight - you are a writer and everything you write should be up to standard.
Other than that, you can make your own decisions about the form of your synopsis. For example, one that I've just written begins with what could be the "blurb" on the back cover, then has a paragraph on each of the two main characters and what they are about - because it is their actions which form the narrative and so their provenance and motivations are crucial. Then I briefly outline the main parts of the story, making it sound like a rounded whole. (I hope!)

Not easy to write, and therefore something that we shy away from, but writing a synopsis at any stage (before or after writing the book) can be a very useful and focusing act.

Edited to add two tips from blog readers - 
Emma Darwin says: "The best tip I've ever had for writing synopses is to write it in a single sentence: your hook, if you like. Then expand that to a paragraph. Then finally expand that to a full page. That way, instead of agonising over what to leave out and feeling the book looks limp and lifeless as a result, you're starting with the core conflict, and only adding what fleshes it out most effectively."

And Gemma Noon: "Extra bit of advice, though: get someone to read through your synopsis who hasn't got a blind clue what your book is about - you've never discussed it, they've never beta read it, never seen a draft if possible. It is ridiculuously easy to leave out crucial info in a synopsis because you know the info backwards; an editor / agent doesn't."

No excuses now: just do it!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

AUTHOR AGE MATTERS - PS RE KIDS/YA

I'm going to add an addendum (what else?) to yesterday's post about whether the age of an author matters.

It seems to matter much more in children's / YA writing. This is borne out by conversations yesterday with children's agents.

Of course, there are many successful older writers for children. One of my closest friends is Vivian French, who is older than she looks (Viv, if you read this, we are only talking over 50 btw, not actually "old" - and you don't even look 50! A neat 45, if you ask me) and hugely prolific and successful - I never think of her as being any older than me, but she is, the lovely woman. In fact, if you'd like to read one of Viv's current super-modern fabulous works, you can do no better than take a look at the gorgeous The Robe of Skulls (Tales from the Five Kingdoms)series.

But, importantly for this point, Viv and other writers "of a certain age" have been doing this for years and know exactly what they're doing. They keep very up-to-date with what's happening in children's writing. Not because they should but because they love it and respect it.

However, too many older writers, especially debut ones, simply don't. You would not believe the number of people who retire and think they'd like to write some cute stories for their grandchildren in their retirement. They think it's so easy - after all, how hard can it be to replicate the little stories of one's youth? Very hard, is how. And if you think of them as little stories you're already lost. You would not believe the derivative crud that too many would-be writers come up with. I have seen it and wept.

This is not about physical age but voice, and just as actors may have voice-training, authors need it, too. Especially children's authors. And voice takes practice and is harder to achieve for the first time if you're older, trying to write for children. It's by no means impossible, but it is harder. The only way to do it is to read the right books voraciously and analytically. And to practise. Vivian French has been practising for years. And writers like her and Joan Lingard (another friend) are trusted because they've got the voice right and know what they're doing. There are many, many others, some of them friends of mine, but I'm not even going to mention them here in case they don't want to talk about age... The point is, they have earned their right to be published by years of practice and honing that voice and keeping up-to-date with what is required of modern writers.

But for those of you who haven't been published yet and are trying to write for children and teenagers, please note: anyone can be a modern writer, whatever one's age. But are you a modern writer or are you mired in the past? Because as an older writer you will have to try extra hard to prove that you're not stuck in the past, because - and here's where the prejudice comes - agents and publishers will suspect that you are, if they know that you are an older, unpublished writer aspiring to write for children. This may be unfair, and you may be wonderfully in tune with modern requirements, but they have learnt the statistical truth: that you are more likely to sound fuddy-duddy, and fuddy-duddy is out.

So, while it's not about age but outlook and modernity, it is the case that too many older writers for young people simply refuse to "write modern." It's not about being trendy or tacky - it's about being fresh and not being fuddy-duddy, patronising and twee. The refusal to move with the times means that agents and publishers end up being inundated with old-fashioned writing from older writers.

There's only one answer: get with it, folks! Keep your ears open, and read modern books in genre. Your age should not shine through in your voice. Your age should be entirely irrelevant and invisible.

I still come back to a previous point: why tell them your age?? Let them see your fabulous writing first and then discover your age later.

On the other hand, I'm afraid it's often rather easy to guess the author's age from the writing... You have been warned.

Monday, 8 March 2010

TOO OLD TO DEBUT???

Last month, I blogged about whether publishers would look askance at middle-aged heroines and I asked you to put your thinking caps on and come back with lots of examples of commercially successful books with heroines between the ages of 45 and 60. Tremendous response! I think we were reassured (those of us who wanted to be) that age is no bar to being a heroine - even though statistically we may be in the minority, it is an important and gorgeous minority. The 76 comments are testimony to the interest. Do go and read it and then come back.

During the comments, one reader, calling herself AN Other Old Bag (!), raised the allied issue about whether the age of the author matters. Susie, David, catdownunder and Colette, amongst others, were also interested in this. (For "interested", read, horrified / terrified / damned furious...)

The questions, I guess, are:
  • Is it harder to become published for the first time for an older than a younger writer?
  • At what age does it start becoming more difficult?
  • Is there a maximum age?
  • If age does matter, why does it?
My answers are going to be based partly on my own observations, and partly on the answers which some actual agents and publishers gave me when I asked them, especially on your behalf. I am so good to you.
  1. There will always be exceptions to any rules about this. So, Mary Wesley publishing her first book when she was 70 should not tell you very much at all: after all, the very fact that she was 70 became the publisher's marketing point, and that cannot be used as a marketing point too often. So, while exceptions are interesting, don't rely on them to provide a normality.
  2. Essentially, becoming published happens because of several factors and the most important one is ALWAYS whether the book is good enough and has a discernible readership, regardless of the age of the author.
  3. Having said that, yes, on average and in general, it does become somewhat harder (ie statistically less likely to happen) to have your first book published after a certain age. 
  4. However, statistics are pointless and should be ignored because you only need to think about you and your book. If your book is brilliant, it will go shooting up the likelihood stakes, beating any age considerations.
  5. Also, the "ageism" effect is much less in writing than for any other profession that I can think of. 
That was the good news. Now, you need the bad news.

This was one top children's agent's response:
"I can categorically state from personal experience that the age of the author definitely affects some publishers' responses. I also have the impression that young editors believe that to make their mark they have to find new young authors with the potential to build long careers. It's baloney, of course."
She then told me (after I queried whether writers actually bothered to tell agents their age when contacting them):
"Most authors do indeed tell your their age when approaching an agent. If the writing appeals to me, the age is irrelevant. And that's dependent on the author's own attitude and voice. " 
Do you notice something? Something contradictory? She said that the age of the author can definitely affect publishers' response, but that if the writing is good enough your age is irrelevant to her. Have you worked out what this means?

Well?

What it means is this: this top agent will take your work if she believes in it, and the only reason she can do this is because she also believes that her powers of persuasion and the way she will pitch you to the publishers will over-ride any considerations they might have about your age. It also means that although your age may affect publishers, it does not necessarily mean that they will reject you because of it. Perhaps what it does mean is that you've got to be even better...

So, if age matters even a bit, those of us of a certain age just need to try harder and be better. Well, we can do that, can't we?

One agent also made the point:
"However, as authors now have to do much more in the way of personal promotion, questions do arise to do with their ability to travel and promote themselves."
In other words, younger implies fitter? Hmmm, well, there are younger writers with health problems and older ones with the constitutions of oxen, as I'm sure you'll agree. But the thing is that truth matters much less than perception.

My response to this, if you are one of these "older" writers, is to say that you must indicate that you are going to be able to be active in promotion. For example, casually point out that you understand that today's writers must be active in promotion and that you are looking forward to this. Don't over-egg it by going on about your age. Be subtle.

Another agent who handles both adult and children's / YA books, said this:
"Five years ago, I'd have said it [age] would make no difference whatsoever, but now, because it absolutely matters to most publishers, it has to matter to us. I don't think I've actually turned a really good book down because of the author's age but I know that older (and by that I probably mean 50+) will be harder to pitch."
One agent suggested that one reason why this might be the case was that writers must be able to embrace new technologies and the (quite unfounded) assumption is that older writers are less able to. This is ludicrous, especially if by "older" you only mean 50. BUT, note the obvious learning point here: if you are over 50 (or whatever - honestly, I feel ridiculous setting an age at all), make an extra point of how web-savvy you are. Platform is increasingly important and age is no bar to that. Prove it!

An agent also pointed out that it can depend on genre.
For example, image is important for YA writing and "mumsy" (her word, not mine) is not the ideal image for a debut YA writer. (Crabbit Old Bat with sexy shoes and a chocolate fetish is just fine...). The agent also stressed that there are always exceptions, and, as I said earlier, we're talking about statistics.

And no, there is no maximum age. Perhaps "very old" could be a selling point. And the age at which it seems to start becoming more difficult is in one's 50s. But please remember that this is just about statistics. At the same time, your writing is improving, so you are raising your chances, if you keep trying.

IN CONCLUSION
Those of you who, like me, are on the "wrong" side of 48, please STOP panicking. These are stupid statistics, really demeaning and quite irrelevant to you and your attempt to write the absolutely most fabulously RIGHT book that you can. Yes, age makes a difference, but not so much of a difference that you can't overcome it. The difference is made by perceptions of fitness, the length of your future career and some fairly logical (though statistical and therefore practically foolish) assumptions, assumptions which you can overcome by writing a great book.

No one is suggesting that an older writer is a less good writer - far from it. What is suggested is simply that an older writer might not have what it takes. So, show them they're wrong.

The message that I would like you to go away with is this:

You're only as old as the books you read - so read modern, new, fresh books, and steep yourself in what is being published NOW. I've often said, and will say again, that the importance of reading the most up-to-date books in your genre cannot be over-stated. All writing is contagious and all publishers, agents and readers care about is the age of your voice, not the number of your wrinkles.

NB and PS - edited to add: I have just been emailed by an agent who would like me also to say that she very often comes across writers who have been published for many years and who are now NOT being published, failing to have contracts renewed because they are failing to adapt to modern needs and mores. They can't see what they're doing wrong and may blame age, but it's not age but attitude. And, as she said, this underlines the crucial importance of reading up-to-date books in genre, voraciously and analytically. Don't slacken, folks!

And by the way, who said you have to tell anyone your age?

Sunday, 7 March 2010

MORE ON OTHER WRITERS GETTING THERE FIRST

To be honest, this is really an excuse for showing you this fabulous video, which I came across via Jonathan Pinnock's comment beneath my recent post about writers having the same / similar ideas and whether this matters.

Have a gander, and then I'll reveal why it's relevant.



Fab, eh?

And now, if you go here, you'll see why it was relevant to my recent post.

Done that? Wasn't it remarkably lucky that the domain name www.mrsdarcyvsthealiens.com was still available?? What were the chances of that? I really do think you should go and have a little read of the serialisation - it's great fun. I know Jonathan through Twitter but confess I'd never got round to reading the Mrs Darcy stuff because a) I'm not a Jane Austen fan, not even a little bit and b) I am not an alien /sci-fi fan. Shows how our preconceptions can work against us. What I learnt was that it doesn't matter what genre we're fans of: when the writing is right, nothing else matters.

Finally, while we're on coincidences AND the ubiquity of ideas, I have another story: while I was away on Friday, I got a lovely email from a crime writer who hadn't read my post about "someone getting there first", though I know he occasionally does read my blog. (He doesn't need to - he's very successful and needs no advice from me.) He told me that he'd been thinking for some time about writing something about Burke and Hare, and during his research he'd come across my novel, Fleshmarket. He then said some rather wonderful things about Fleshmarket but added that I'd now completely put him off writing the subject himself, because I'd "totally nailed it". I should probably suggest that he does read yesterday's blog post, because then he'd find out that no one has ever nailed anything - there's always another way.

Obviously, for writers there's a risk when we read things that have any chance of being too similar to what we're doing. Because if we haven't read something similar, we can be quite free with what we do. Anyone who writes about Edinburgh in the 19th century is likely to use much of the same detail, because how else other than with truth can we describe how things were? Thing is, we also have to read around our subject and see what other people have done, not only to make sure we do something different but to follow that rule: read widely in your genre. We have to know, even if the knowledge is sometimes painful.

So, all this problem of whether our idea is new or new enough or sufficiently "undone" is tricky, and has no simple answers, other than the use of common sense, integrity and artistic magic. I firmly believe that wide reading is essential for a writer, even if it reveals that someone does seem to have "got there first". That ugly moment is one that be overcome - a creative writer's brain will find a different way to do it. In fact, I emailed that crime writer back, told him he definitely should tackle Burke and Hare, that it would be very different from mine and that I would buy it. And from his response, I know he will. He wants to and he should. After all, Burke and Hare is not my story and many people have used it before. It just needs to filter through and merge with all the things in his creative mind that are different from what's in my mind, and he'll come up with something entirely his. And I can't wait to read it!

Meanwhile, to contradict all my hitherto reassuring advice, I am now in a state of terror because I have just had a high-concept idea for a high-concept series and this really is something that I think could only work once... If I discover that anyone else has done it or has the idea before I get my act together, there may be a whole lot of screaming.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

TO PLAN OR NOT TO PLAN? AND HOW?

To plan or not to plan? A blog-reader, @sleepycatt on Twitter, asked me to blog about planning. I did warn her that I am not the best person to talk about this, but she was undeterred.

Non-writers and writers alike are often fascinated by how and whether authors plan their stories, by which they usually mean "Do you know what's going to happen / do you know what's going to happen next?" I'm quite fascinated myself. It's part of the strange process of creating a novel (or non-fiction, though that's not so strange).

From my own thoughts and my frequent listening to other authors, here are some truths of the matter:
  • some writers do and some don't, and it doesn't seem to be to do with the type of book. You'd think a detective story would need to be planned intricately, but I've often heard crime writers say they don't plan. People tell me that when writing my own thriller, Deathwatch, I must have known who the stalker was, but I didn't. No flipping idea. 
  • each writer's understanding of the question is different. So, for some "planning" might mean outlining every chapter in detail before starting, and for others it might mean having an idea of what will happen at some point and gradually getting there, perhaps planning along the way; for others it will be something in the middle;
  • each author should do what works for him or her and not worry what anyone else is doing. If it works, it's right.
Let me tell you how I tend to go about things, bearing in mind that I call myself a non-planner. You'll see that for a non-planner, I actually do some things that have the same effect as planning. Bear in mind as well that for me every book has its own approach, so I am taking very much an average or a paradigm in the following description.

Step One - the idea comes. It weaves its way into my soul and I begin to obsess. Nothing is written down - that would wreck it (for me). Characters and voices start to grow. They enter my sleep. My husband notices me being distracted and absent. (Nothing new there.) Various important scenes appear, though never the ending. (The only two times I've thought I knew the ending, I was wrong and when I got there there was more to come. The Passionflower Massacre and Sleepwalking, if you're interested.) I do more walking, because walking is my thinking time and the only way ideas and vague plans can come. In my mind during this phase (and others) I am predicting and resolving major dead-ends, discovering what is not going to work - with my earlier novels, I couldn't do this, and the dead-ends were painful when I stubbed my toe on them.)

Step Two - the first chapter comes. I write it. (Sometimes, for example with Fleshmarket and The Highwayman's Footsteps, this happens before stage one. The first chapter establishes the voice, and I can't now proceed until that is 100% spot on for this particular book.

Stage Three - now, usually, a bit of planning happens. This means that I get myself a lovely new notebook, A4 size, and start making random notes - themes, character notes etc. Possibly, if I can, I might sketch out a vague plan of how the plot strands might go. But I can't over-stress that the words "might" and "vague" are operative here. My lovely new notebook is often barely used, until later. Usually, the first things I write in it are stupid and get ripped out quite soon.

Stage Four (though this is usually combined with Stage Three) - I write the next chapter. And the next. And so on. At any point, and often, I do lots of walking and thinking through each next stage. What usually happens is that I know three or four Big Scenes and my task is to get my characters to each one. At many points, things I thought might happen don't, or happen differently, because essentially my characters have taken over.

It is that reason (characters hijacking my brain) that means I can't really plan, and to be honest I lurch from scene to scene in a very scary and choatic way.

What I DO do, however, and this is what allows my book to look very unchaotic eventually, is REVERSE PLAN. This is the most important part of my writing process.

What the hell is REVERSE PLANNING???
Simple: every now and then, for example when things have got a bit complicated and look as though they might go haywire, I go back and write an outline of what I've written, separating each plot strand or character development into a different column or colour on an A4 sheet in landscape format (usually). Gosh, doesn't that sound organised??? This will show me a time-line of everything and allow me to see what sort of story arc or shape I've got, and whether my length / pacing / structure are on course to produce the book I want.

I will probably re-do my RP four times during the book. It allows me to tie up ends properly, make sure that each plot strand has its appropriate weight and shape and just ensure that things are ticking along. In a way, it's the bridle and saddle for my wild Arab stallion of a story. It gives me control, but allows me to have a thrilling ride all the same.

Although I won't make rules for planning (other than "do what works"), and although I wouldn't dream of telling you to do it my way, I do have some suggestions:
  1. Do keep character notes - if you have a memory like mine, you will not remember by word 18,904 that you have said that Character A has blue eyes or once had a kitten called Sue. I recommend doing this either in a notebook with a page for each character, or in a Word doc. I also recommend that you write down precise wording that you used for any detail - because then, when you want to change an aspect of character or personailty, you can do a "find" on the phrase and change them all.
  2. I have used - and recommend - a pin board with little cards that you can move around. You can have different colours for different plot strands, or organise it however you want, but this type of storyboard allows you to make lots of changes as you go, and really to visualise the shape of your book.
  3. Do try to foresee problems before they arise, and if you suspect that something is going wrong, stop, think, walk, think, and don't simply plough ahead hoping it will work itself out.
  4. Don't expect to stick to your plan. Always allow yourself to be adaptable.
  5. It's perfectly possible to plan one section at a time - that's pretty much what I'm doing when I'm walking - so, I write a chapter and then go walking to get the next one. It's just like going shopping...
  6. The fact that I don't make early written notes on my ideas is not a recommendation - it's just me! I like the idea to work itself out organically and I find as soon as I write something down it becomes too strict - strictness is for the later stages of my writing process.
What about novel-writing software? Again, if it works for you, use it. The only one I've used is Writers Café - and in fact, you'll see an endorsement from me on their website. I mention a "sticky plot situation" - funnily enough, that was in the book which is about to come out in May, Wasted. Apart from this, I haven't tried any software but I feel that it would not often be the answer for me: I need to "walk it out", to think in the open air, with my dog, who helpfully doesn't speak to me.

I rather suspect I haven't helped @sleepycatt at all! Honestly, it's a tough and solitary world being a writer, and we just have to find what works. I also believe that it's not only different for each writer, but different for each book - or maybe that's because each of my books is so different from the others.

One thing that's true of all my books, though: the best planning happens not while I'm at my desk but while I'm walking the dog. Unfortunately, she usually has other plans  - I just don't quite know what they are...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

NO! SOMEONE GOT THERE FIRST!

You might call this a horror story: The Terrifying Spectre of Someone Getting There First.
One of the heart-stopping moments in any writer's life - for unpublished as well as published bods - is when one hears that another author is about to produce a book which sounds horribly, terrifyingly, teeth-gnashingly similar to the one we are writing or planning or dreaming of. Our instinct is to believe that this is The End, and that we must now ditch the fabulous idea.

No. Calm down. This is real life. It happens and it doesn't matter, because your story will be different (unless you are actually going to read it and steal from  it). To understand fully, read the inimitable Editorial Ass explaining why it's no cause for concern.

I have my own story of extraordinary coincidence which I have written about before. Rather than send you away to that blog post, I'll copy the relevant bit below. (Note: I was writing from the perspective of the issue of plagiarism, but my point about not worrying if you discover in advance that someone is writing something that sounds similar, is equally relevant.)
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THE EXTRAORDINARY COINCIDENCE
In October 2001, my first novel, Mondays are Red, was published. I'd been writing it during 2000/2001. Being unpublished, and not knowing any published author at all, let alone a stellar one like Tim Bowler, I had no way of knowing what any other author was writing in the privacy of his/her own garret.

Mondays are Red is a Young Adult novel about a 14 year-old boy called Luke who has synaesthesia.

A month later, in November 2001, Tim Bowler's umpteenth novel, Starseeker, was published. He had also been writing it during 2000/2001. (For those of you who don't know the business, any book published in November would already have been printed by October. Unless it's the biog of Michael Jackson.)

Starseeker is a Young Adult novel about a 14-year-old boy called Luke who has synaesthesia.

Because they were published in consecutive months, we had some joint reviews (hooray for me, debut author being reviewed and interviewed alongside TB!) but no one accused the other of plagiarism, because it obviously wasn't, because a) it couldn't have been, time-wise, and b) despite the identical descriptions above, they are two utterly different stories. Couldn't be more different. (Unless mine had been about a fifteen-year-old girl called Lucy with synaesthesia.)

But it's worth considering the following:
  • if Tim's novel had come out while I was still writing mine, I'd have changed the name and probably the age of the protagonist because the last thing I'd want is to appear to plagiarise - and I'd have panicked, horribly; I might even have cried;
  • next time you hear that two stories have the same motif / theme / premise, don't leap to the conclusion either that one is plagiarising or that they will actually be the same - unless they are;
  • similarly with the horrible word "derivative" - nothing stands entirely on its own. No author is an island. Yes, some are unduly influenced, sometimes conconsciously, and occasionally some actually steal, which is disgraceful. But some influence is legitimate, inevitable and right. Writing and ideas are contagious, but they will mutate in the environment of a different mind.
There's a funny ending to this story
Tim and I became good friends and discovered we thought in many ways alike. "That's not very funny," I hear you say. No, but when I became friends with him I was writing another book, which had the provisional title of Apocalypse.

Luckily, authory friends tend to tell each other what they're writing.
"What you writing at the moment, Tim?" I asked.

"It's called Apocalypse," he replied. "It's about ..."
And since his Apocalypse was coming out before mine, guess who decided to change her title, even though there's no copyright on titles? It became The Passionflower Massacre. Much better. Who'd want to call a book Apocalypse anyway? Silly man.
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So, the fact that the concept sounds the same says nothing about whether the story is going to be in any way the same. It's most unlikely to be the same in any important way if you simply happen to have had the same-sounding idea without reading it.

My next novel, Wasted, has a concept which makes it sound like the film Sliding Doors and the book Dice Man. I haven't read Dice Man yet - though I will, after Wasted is published. I did see Sliding Doors years ago, mainly because I first started writing this book about 15 years ago and people kept saying, "You should see Sliding Doors". In much trepidation, I did. I needn't have worried. Yes, the underlying concept sounds similar, until you read the book and see the film and then you realise that nothing apart from the underlying concept is similar at all. Sliding Doors follows two possibilities, each equally "true", Wasted looks at one "true world", with many what ifs disappearing into nothingness.

Am I worried that Dice Man may turn out to have some unpleasant similarities? Well, if you want me to be honest, I am a little. But if I follow my own advice, I shouldn't be, should I?? All I know is that I was writing the idea before Dice Man was published and have been fascinated by causal determinism and theories of chance since I studied philosophy at University. So, if there are any similarities, they will be interesting but nothing to worry about.

So, if you decide not to worry about similar ideas, I won't either. OK?

(NB: I'm away today and tomorrow, doing school talks and meeting a publisher. )


Monday, 1 March 2010

FLASH! TO CUT A SHORT STORY LONG...

For a post about flash fiction, this is going to be ironically long. But my guest has a lot to say and it's all worth hearing. So, get a coffee and put your feet up. And at the end you'll be rewarded by a stunning flash of talent from Nik Perring.

My guest expert is Tania Hershman, of the fabulous The White Road and Other Stories. I loved lots of the stories but the first one most sticks in my mind. Tania has pointed out that it's too long to be flash, but I don't care - it got right under my skin anyway.

About Tania
Tania's first book, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.  Now based in Bristol, Tania is current Fiction Editor of Southword literary journal and a judge for the Bristol Short Story Prize, the Brit Writers Awards and the Sean O'Faolain short story competition. She has just started as writer-in-residence in Bristol University's Science Faculty, and hopes to be writing and encouraging others to write science-inspired flash fiction. Tania is founder and editor of The Short Review, an online journal reviewing short story collections and interview authors. She blogs at TitaniaWrites.

Tania's interview
NM: Can you define flash-fiction? There must be something more than extreme shortness?
As far as I am concerned, it is purely about length. Just as a short story can be almost anything except long (and the precise maximum is something wrangled over), for me the definition of flash fiction is a story under 1000 words, with no minimum. What is a story? Well, that's not something I am prepared to attempt to answer! However, I did mention something in a writing forum discussion about having read novels which I felt were flash-fiction-like in their intensity, their absolute economy with words. So flash fiction could be a type of writing, too, regardless of length, but I think I'm just making that up right now. I'd love to hear what other people think,
NM: What else are you trying to achieve, that may be different from a longer story?
A great short story, for me, is one where the writer requires the reader to work - not everything is simply handed over so the reader can just watch the story unfold as if it was a television program. The reader has to fill in gaps - not in a frustrating way, but in an exhilarating way that makes them feel involved in the story. This is what I like to read, anyway. And the beauty is that different readers read the same story differently, which is what I find when people want to talk to me about my stories.
So, flash fiction is this taken to an even more extreme degree. The kind of flash stories I love are those that plunge you straight in and 5 minutes later you have finished the story and it feels as though you have been punched in the gut. There is no room in 1000 words, or 100 words, for preamble, sometimes even locations, names. But this doesn't mean, as I wrote in my essay on flash fiction in Short Circuit, that it is stripped down prose. Grace Paley's two-page story, which I quote from in the book, has some beautiful descriptions.
It also doesn't mean that a flash story necessarily has to take place over a very short space of time. There are really no limits to what you can do in a limited space, and I personally find the constraints very refreshing. I was trained as a journalist and I think that's why I love the ability to say what you want to say in as few words as possible.
What I find you can do in a flash story is ask the reader to step into more surreal situations than they might be prepared to enter in longer pieces. I feel freer to play with words, to makes less obvious "sense" than in a longer story. I think it's easier for me to sustain writing that kind of oddness over a flash story too.
NM: Is all flash fiction "literary", however we define that? I mean in the same way as some novels are. Can you have genre flash fiction? Bodice-ripper flash fiction??!
It’s certainly not all literary! First, I think there is a misconception that all short stories are somehow "literary" - something perhaps hard to read, and "worthy". I quoted recently on The Short Review blog's Lit Bits from a library blog encouraging readers to borrow short story collections because "they make you look posh". Huh? Not at all. As you can see from the collections we review on The Short Review, short stories are everything and anything - comic erotica, mystery science fiction, dark feminist historical fiction... And so is flash fiction. I've read wonderful science fiction flash stories, for example. And the most recent flash collection I read and loved, Stefanie Freele's Feeding Strays, made me laugh out loud at various points, as did Sean Lovelace's How Some People Like Their Eggs.  I haven't come across bodice-ripper flashes yet, but why not? How long does it take to rip a bodice? I sense a Nicola Morgan blog competition here! (Excuse me, we'll have no bodice-ripping here. Ed.)
NM: When did it start, do you think?
Kafka and Borges wrote very very short stories, so it's not a new phenomenon invented to fit onto mobile devices, which is what people often think. It's not something dreamed up for our apparently short attention spans, because you actually need to pay more attention to a shorter story. If you skim... it's over!
NM: How did you get into it? Accidentally or on purpose?
I somehow found out about Creating Reality's 300 word short story competition about 5 years ago.  As a journalist then, I was very aware of word count and I liked the challenge. I went in for it, and got nowhere. So I tried harder. Something went right because the following year, 2006, I won! That was my second ever flash story, Plaits, my first competition win, and a cheque for £300. Certainly a great incentive! But the other vital thing that came out of that competition was the second place winner, a certain Ms Vanessa Gebbie, who decided to email and congratulate me.

We struck up a long distance friendship (I was still living in Israel then) and she was about to set up her own online writers' forum. I joined, and then participated in my first ever Flash Blastette. Sounds exciting? It was life-changingly thrilling. Over 24 hours, inspired by 24 sets of prompts - words or short phrases made up or borrowed from poems etc.. -  you write as many flash stories as you can, knowing that all the other forum members are doing the same worldwide, feeling that energy. The idea is to incorporate the words or phrases into your story. You start to write and then every time you feel you are coming to a stop, you grab another, often incongruous, prompt and put it in, letting it take you off somewhere else.

What I found was that I could write a pretty much complete flash story in about 30 minutes, and that the prompts led my writing into very quirky and surreal territory. I loved it! And, when I then found homes for many of these flash stories in various publications, I saw that this was not just some writing exercise, this is writing for its own sake. I now set myself my own prompts and do it alone, as well as with friends. Anyone can try it. 
NM: What do you like about it?
It's highly addictive. The process by which I learned to write flash is highly adrenalin-producing, and it's also almost instant gratification. 30 minutes to write something almost publishable? Who wouldn't want to? This process also enables me to go into The Zone for that 30 minutes, keeping my Inner Critic at bay, and stop before IC has cottoned on!  I love freeing the more surreal side to my writing, the way I have no real clue what I am writing about until I finish - and sometimes not even then.

Also, the other beauty of it is if you know you can write one in half an hour, then if you don't like a particular flash story you have written, you are not so wedded to it as to a longer piece you may have been sweating over for months. It is not your Most Precious Baby. 
NM: What's the market for it? Where would someone start to offer their work? On-line places? Seriously, if someone loves this idea and wants to dip a toe, where's a good place to start?
There are many online and print journals that want your flash. Some of them even pay. If you do a search on Duotrope for markets that want flash fiction, you get 1154, and looking down the list, all genres from literary to experimental, horror, fantasy, magic realism, science fiction, erotica.... Some of the excellent journals I read are Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Elimae, Dogzplot, Quick Fiction, Sleeping Fish. The Americans are definitely ahead here, but the UK market is catching up, with several new publications just launching now, such as Fractured West, Fuselit, and Flash magazine. (No, they don't all begin with F).

There are also more and more competitions where you can win a lot of money per word. Ambit magazine in the UK just ran a 200-word writing competition where the first prize is £500, the Fish One Page Short Story Prize for a 300-word short story is 1000 euros, and a very welcome addition for 2010 is the renowned Bridport Prize's new flash fiction category, with a prize of £1000 for 250 words. I say: why not try it? There are also many places to read great flash fiction, not to know "how" to do it but to get an impression of the range of what is possible. I have a list on my book's website to start with.

I am also thrilled that BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting a week of my flash stories in the Afternoon Reading Slot in June, the first time, I believe, that this traditional short story 15 minutes will have featured very very short fiction, 3 or 4 stories each day. I am intrigued to see what the Radio 4 audience think!
NM: What about the reader's experience? How is this different (other than being shorter!)?
If you want to read something that will take you weeks to finish, clearly short stories and flash fiction won't satisfy this. But why not read everything? Read a short story while you are having a cup of tea, read a piece of flash fiction while you're on the train. Excellent short and short short stories will make you gasp. You will be astounded at the intensity and vivid imagery that can be conveyed in such a short space. You might not find it so easy to forget what you have just read. And you might just get addicted to the rush!
NM: What are you working on now? And what else would you like to point readers towards?
Half of the 27 stories in my first book, The White Road and Other Stories, are flash stories. I am just getting 70 flash stories into shape for a collection. I am also writing more of them, as well as adapting my existing short stories into various forms such as short plays and films. If I can plug something: I was the Grand Prize winner of last year's Binnacle Ultra-Short competition for 150 word short stories, and the Ultra-Short edition of the journal has just been published. They have done the most beautiful job in previous years, each tiny story printed on its own business-card-sized card, and I am sure it will be a stunning issue this year. A great place to start reading!  
NM: Oooh, I like the business card idea. I also like an idea I've just had myself: put the business cards inside bars of chocolate....

HUGE THANKS to Tania for giving up so much of her time. I know she'll answer questions from you if she can, so do ask.

Tania also recommends the book recommended on last week’s post about short stories:  Short Circuit, A Guide to the Art of the Short Story edited by Vanessa Gebbie.

Salt are offering readers of this blog an additional 10% discount on the purchase of The White Road and Other Stories. Visit the Salt page here and enter the coupon code GM18py7n when checking out. A very useful discount and if you buy through Salt you are also helping a small publisher.

I definitely think I should have a flash fiction competition soon, but not now because I’m snowed under. And I can think of several excellent judges. Just need to butter them up a bit because I'm all out of favours right now.

HOWEVER, there is still the competition that Vanessa offered in my short story post last week. To remind you, Vanessa offered a copy of Short Circuit  to the person with the "most creative/engaging way of telling me why they want to write a short story that is more than just a yarn". Hooray! Please email your entry to n@nicolamorgan.co.uk before March 12th. Please put SHORT CIRCUIT COMP in the subject line. 50 words max.

AND FINALLY ... I’m going to give a well-deserved plug to Nik Perring, short and short short fiction writer, who has a collection here.Click the link on the right which asks What's in the Fridge? He has kindly given me permission to reproduce one of his stories here. It was originally shown in Ink, Sweat and Tears, here, and there are some great comments, if you'd like to take a look.

When You’re Frightened, Honey, Think of Strawberries
by Nik Perring
She remembers now what she was told when she was small: When you’re frightened, Honey, think of strawberries.
So she does. She’s been thinking about them ever since he started talking. While his words bite her she thinks of their spidery tops. She thinks of strawberries as he explains, justifies, tells her why this isn’t working, why this must end. Strawberries: she thinks of all the shades they could be; as pink as her lips or deep, dark, like the blood when he cut his finger dicing onions yesterday. The red of his wound soothes her.
Strawberries she thinks, as he unlatches the door, and she remembers how cold their skins can be. She could think of them in a bowl, cream folded around them, but she doesn’t. She’d rather see them on their own; almost heart shaped. She pictures their seeds, like a hundred lonely eyes. And she wishes they had pits so she could spit them at him.
And because all she can think of are strawberries and pits and colours and leaves, she is unable to reply. There is nothing to say.
Reproduced here by kind permission. Copyright © Nik Perring 2009