Enhanced books

I was looking for something to read this morning so I picked up a Kate Mosse. I vaguely remembered that she’d started one of the big fiction prizes (the Orange Prize for Fiction) so I flicked through the back to find her bio.

I was a bit surprised to find that there was more than just a bio at the back. There must have been fifteen or twenty pages. There was an extra story, written specially for the Waterstones version. I’ve seen reading group notes in books before, but this also had a plot synopsis and Kate explaining what some of her themes were throughout the book.

I’m still not sure what I think. As a writer, I always approach work with an attitude of “you can’t explain anything to your reader”. In other words, your book has to stand alone. If you’re submitting to an agent, you can’t explain the themes in your cover letter, because they’ve got to be able to get the message of the book solely from what you’ve written. Except now, you can go on to explain some of the deeper meaning behind it.

Overall I think it’s a good thing. From a writer’s point of view, it’s interesting to have someone successful explain how they did it. Writing is as much a craft as anything else. Just like a carpenter, sometimes you need someone to show you the steps that result in the finished article. And, in this age of e-readers and the internet, authors need to look for ways to stand out from the crowd. I suspect a lot of authors are doing similar things, as well as tie-ins to the internet. In many ways it’s an extension of the culture of blog-tours, twitter and all the other social media. The other thing I’ve noticed is that some publishers are including logos on their books to indicate how much action, romance, sensuality, etc. is in the book.

Looking over the best-selling authors list, I reached a surprising conclusion. What readers want, more than anything else, is consistency. The real high-flyers are the likes of John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Barbara Cartland. Of those, only Koontz really takes risks. But you still know roughly what to expect when you pick up one of his books. It’ll be thrilling, and there’s a high chance of something paranormal taking place, and you might find yourself veering into horror on occasion.

At the moment, I’m reading a DI Alan Banks detective novel by Peter Robinson. I know I’m going to get a complicated investigation, a dour Yorkshire detective with a messy personal life and highly cultured tastes. Most of the time, I think, most readers want this – comfort food for the brain. Occasionally though, it is nice to be surprised. I read the Night Circus based on the title and a very short blurb. I thoroughly enjoyed it, partly because I didn’t know what to expect. Similarly with the Rivers of London, which took me equally by surprise, although the blurb was a bit more forthcoming.

Ultimately, publishing is a business, and the most profit in any business is giving people what they want. So, these enhanced books will sell more copies and people will enjoy them more. If you’ll excuse my lapse into office-speak, they add value to the reading experience and that must be good.

What are your thoughts? Please leave comments!

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Still writing

Well, I’m doing something quite tricky here, I’m reading a book about plotting (Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell) and I’m still writing my novel. It’s similar to painting a picture and reading a book on how to paint in between times. I can already see differences in how I work.

The reason that I’m doing it this way is because I believe to be a writer you have to write. Every day. I’ve set myself a simple goal of one sentence a day, but often I get carried away and must be averaging a good few hundred words a day. In order to get over a block, I adopted a “write anything” policy, knowing that I can go back and edit. You can’t edit if you don’t have any words down on the screen! But now I’m reading about how to put plots together, and make scenes better, I’m toughening up on myself. Write anything is no longer good enough. I stop and think and craft my words. I re-read and go back and (hopefully) make things better, more vivid, more interesting.

I’m wanting to rush ahead in Plot & Structure as I know chapters on complex plots are coming up which will really help with me. Of course, when I was planning my current WIP – the Fifth Warrior – it was conceived in terms of big ideas and I grafted a plot on afterwards. So this idea of how to structure a plot is very useful to me. It’s also fascinating as I’m reading a Dean Koontz novel at the moment and I can see where his strengths are, and also that he tends to use fairly formulaic plots. But he is so good at them, and his characterisation and ideas are so strong that you don’t really notice.

I think that when it’s all written, the first rewrite will be fairly major. I don’t want to go wholesale down the American commercial route of writing page-turning thrillers. But on the other hand I would like my readers to be interested and want to finish the book, so I will take on some of the advice about crafting a decent plot.

Structuring a novel

I’ve had one of those realisations that initially seemed like an overnight bolt of lightning. But when I analysed it I realised that it’s been brewing in my subconscious for several months at least. Let me explain, I subscribe to various twitter and Facebook feeds aimed at independent and self-published authors and last night, have written a good number of words, I found myself browsing blogs talking about the skills you need to write. This particular series of posts was about how to structure a novel, how you have to follow the rules.

There’s nothing shocking or surprising in this but my reaction was unexpected. I just took this on board and could see the sense of it. I’m sure five or ten years ago I’d have bridled against it and seen it as constraining my creativity. But now I can see the light. This is essentially the same advice as I got from a workshop run by Maggie Gee on an Arvon course I went on six months back. And, recently I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series. What struck me most about these books is that they are beautifully written and very original. The initial premise is that the main character, Odd Thomas, is a fry-cook who can see spirits of the lingering dead. But if you work it out the plot of each of the first three books is relatively simple. I think that if I did a page count, it’d probably work out according to a fixed plan. We introduce characters and location, we find the problem, usually bad people doing bad things, and we roller-coaster up and down with more and more tension until we reach the big finish, leaving just about ten to twenty pages to wrap up and introduce the next in the series.

So, I’m now sold on the idea of structure. It’s just a question of taking my work in progress and trying to figure out where the plot has gone and how to bring it back on track. I’ve been most stuck on the opening chapter and I think that’s because I don’t have any structure. The first chapter has to introduce everyone, set the location and set up the main dilemma or problem for the book. Maybe it needs to be a couple of chapters. At least now I have a much clearer idea of where I should be going.

Anyway, what do you think? Do we need structure in a novel? Does it constrain an author or does it give them a secure framework on which they can demonstrate their flair and creativity?