Three Hundred and Fifty

It’s been a long time since I blogged. At first this was because I was writing but then the summer holidays arrived. As I’m a stay-at-home Dad or House-husband, the summer holidays mean that the three boys take priority. As they get older, they stay up later, and my writing time diminishes. I have, unfortunately, never been one of those people who can rise early in the morning and write before the boys wake up. Unfortunately once you stop writing, and especially if you start submitting to agents, it becomes really hard to get your momentum going again.

I found salvation in a writing blog that I’ve signed up to – Randy Ingmersons Advanced Fiction Writing Magazine. I get a monthly email and it is always an interesting read. This month there was an article about how to organise your writing and increase your productivity by setting word count targets. It was all really useful but one particular nugget helped me out. It’s a simple starting point for writing when you’re struggling – write 350 words a day.

It’s kind of a trick because it’s very easy to write 350 words – it’s not a huge amount and can be done in twenty minutes if you set your mind to it. The reason it’s a trick is because hard to stop once you’ve written 350 words. Usually I write between 450 and 500 words every day. It doesn’t sound like much but it does mean that the word count is going up quite satisfyingly. certainly after a dry spell, it’s a good feeling. For ages, I’d written about 16 or 17 thousand words, now it’s over 21 thousand.

And what it does is keep your book alive in your head. I do a lot of my writing in my head, running plots and characters around while I’m doing other, slightly more mundane jobs. Then, when I have enough, I write it down. But while I’m writing a mere 350 words a day, then my book is moving forwards.

So that’s my one tip for the day – write 350 words. I’ve made this blog a living demonstration of the principle – it weighs in at 350 words!

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Enjoying being a writer

I have one completed novel and I’m working on the sequel. I’m currently in the process of looking for either an agent or a publisher which entails a lot of waiting. I am still writing and putting words down – I should crack the 10,000 barrier in the next day or two! But, maintaining a positive frame of mind I know that once I start to get contracts signed, life will get busier and I’ll be less free to pick and choose what I do and what I work on. So at the moment, I am enjoying being a writer.

I’m currently re-reading one of my favourite books, Stephen King’s The Stand. It’s weird because I know it’s not SK’s favourite but popular with his fans. Viewing writing as a craft, I’d like to draw an analogy with carpentry. Before I started studying writing technique, I’d look at a book, like a table or cupboard. I’d know what I liked and what I didn’t – what worked and what didn’t. Then as I learnt, I’d read books, but I’d be looking at the joints, the carving. Whether the angles were true or not, how it was all put together. Even more so when I was watching TV I’d start to see the underlying structure of the plot and character development.

Now, finally I seem to have gone through that and can reread a book (like the Stand) and see how it is put together. I can enjoy reading it but now my enjoyment is deeper because I know why it is good. It’s like seeing a table or cupboard, knowing it to be useful and beautiful. But also going beyond that point to appreciating the choices the craftsman made, and why they made them. Then, wrapping all those feelings up to an overall appreciation of the work.

I’m guessing that this what is meant by reading as a writer. Not just reading to fill the time but reading to see what else is possible, what other people have done – studying the work to learn from it.

The other thing that I love is that books and reading seem to me to be as natural as breathing. But every now and again something happens to open my eyes to the fact that other people are different. I bumped into an acquaintance the other day and she saw that I had a paperback with me as I was intending to eat alone. But instead she started chatting about the Stephen King novel she was reading. So she went from an acquaintance to a friend. In this day of multiple TV channels, online streaming of films, automatic recorders and all the other temptations of the internet, reading is being marginalised. Meeting someone else who chooses to read over any other form of entertainment is meeting a kindred spirit – even more so if you share the same taste in books!

Have any of you met other readers and formed a bond like that? I get perplexed when I meet people who don’t read so it’s lovely to meet those who do! I know I have other writers who read this blog and I wondered what you think? Do you analyse books as you read them and does that make them less or more enjoyable?

What’s it all about?

I’ve decided to share my ideas for a blurb, intro letter or even an elevator pitch in this blog. (An elevator pitch is where you find yourself in the same lift (I am British not American!) as a publisher and have thirty seconds to pitch your idea before they get off at their floor.)

It’s quite common among writers for people to be afraid of sharing their work too early, if at all. There is a fear that someone will seize upon your ideas and write a book based on them. I discount this for several reasons. Firstly, I’ve put many months of hard work into my story, so anyone looking to steal would be starting from a long way back. By the time they’ve got to first draft, hopefully my manuscript will have passed across the desk (OK, email inbox) of agents. Also, it’s all electronic nowadays, and a beta copy has been sent out to many people, so there is proof that I got there first.

But the most important point is that I have confidence in my voice. I am the only one who can tell this story in this way. Even if I gave another writer my plot and character outlines, it wouldn’t be the same story. There is a Kurt Vonnegut quote (well probably, I haven’t been able to verify it!) – “Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.” It’s a bit flippant but it does underline an important point. There are very few really original stories, and to an extent, readers don’t really want bold and original. They want to hear a writer’s unique take on the stories they are familiar with.

To hark back to an earlier post, it’s like music. Yes, you could make music that was atonal, a random collection of notes and screeches, and it would probably be ground breaking and revolutionary. But no-one would want to listen to it. Once you start following the rules of a particular genre, then you start to build an audience and have a place to do things with your own stamp on it.

Anyway, for all that I’ve now spent 350 words putting it off, so here goes:

Identity is the first book in the Reluctant Buddhist series. It is a mystery set in an English seaside town with spiritual and psychic undercurrents. Imagine a Phil Rickman book with Buddhism or a Jason Bourne adventure set on a small stage – an off-season, English tourist resort.

I haven’t got much further than that, but next will be a blurb. I do have various synopses around because I’ve entered a couple of competitions.

Please let me know what you think on the comments below!

Tools of the Trade

I know the old saying – a bad workman blames his tools. But the other side of coin is that you have to use the right tool for the job. (I have scars on my hands to reinforce this lesson!) In thinking about how my writing has changed over the years, I’ve realised that advances in technology have changed the way that I write. Ready access to word-processors means that you can edit over and over again and move huge chunks of text around. At the other end of the scale, you can make minor changes to sentences ad infinitum.  The problem is that it’s not easy to know when to stop. I’m almost tempted to get one of my typewriters working again and use it to write a short story or even something longer.

Anyway, more than anything, two programs have completely transformed my writing process – Dropbox and Scrivener. Firstly, Scrivener is a program written by writers for writers. It is designed to help you write novels, screenplays, non-fiction – in fact pretty much anything. Whereas on Word working with many files can be tricky, Scrivener encourages you to break your work down into manageable chunks. I use it to write scene by scene. You can see all your scenes on a virtual cork board and drag them around. (You can then move them around and get into all the problems I outlined above!) It has many other lovely features, like a thesaurus and character name generator. It can take in any kind of document file and output to pretty much anything as well. It can also store files like pictures, sound and URLs as research. I know as a writer I’ve found that it has improved my writing. The ability to see the whole novel as an outline means that I can see the strengths and weakness, and manage the structure, rhythm and pace much better than before.

Secondly, Dropbox is integrated cloud storage. To put that into plain English, they keep your files in a secure location on a remote computer. All the time you are connected to the Internet, you can access that secure location to get access to your files. But, the beauty of it is that if you’re not on the Internet, all your files are still there. It looks like a normal directory when you’re working, but with the security of someone else backing it up. The other advantage for me is that I can seamlessly share my files between my two computers – an Ubuntu laptop and a Windows desktop. If everything went wrong and I lost both my computers, I could go to an Internet cafe or a library, log on and retrieve all my files. In fact, it’s already proved invaluable when I went on a writing retreat without my laptop power cable. I managed to borrow another computer, went to Dropbox, downloaded my files, and carried on working.

So, what do you think? Do tools change the process, or is writing still writing regardless of what you use?

The Process of Novel Writing

When I was younger (more naive?) I thought that becoming an author would go something like this. I’d write a novel, by starting at the beginning and writing through to the end. Then I’d send three chapters and a synopsis off to some publishers, one would ask for the full manuscript and I’d get published. Of course, it didn’t take many rejection letters to realise that it was a lot harder than it looked!

Then along came firstly print on demand, closely followed by e-readers. (Did I mention that I’ve been writing a long time? I started on typewriters.) Now you could take your first draft and put it out there on the Internet and people would flock to you and buy it. Or not. Of course, marketing and publicity are the elephant in the room for the whole self-publishing game.

Now, feeling older and wiser, I’m approaching the whole business from a different perspective. I plan my novels, not down to a chapter by chapter, scene by scene level, but enough to know where the big plot points should be and what I want them to be. Then the writing process has changed – after many drafts I’ve sent my manuscript out to beta readers. Despite my best efforts, there remain many typos still to fix. Typos are funny beasts, I was reviewing the third beta readers and she had highlighted certain sentences. I had to read the sentence through several times and then check it word by word. Often it’s small things like ‘my’ instead of ‘me’ that Word can’t spot and I tend to read what I think I wrote instead of what’s there.

Once the typos have been done, I’m also looking at the bigger issues. Some of the readers have highlighted structural issues, mostly minor. So now I’m considering them and make some small changes.

I’m not feeling impatient to get on and get it sent out to agents or publishers. I know that I’ve changed and I feel that the world has changed as well. I now look at my manuscript and think that I’ve got one chance to make a first impression. I suspect there are very few agents who’d give a manuscript a second chance. So now, I want this to be as polished as it can be.

I think I’m also more realistic about the end-game as well. I don’t think that a publisher will write a huge advance cheque, and then after a few months start discussing cover art! I know that it will probably be a negotiation to and fro. I expect that they’ll want to see how I react to edits and suggestions to change the story. When I do get a deal, I expect that when I go through the edits and launch details I’ll also be working on the next book, or even the one after that! I see it as a process of overlapping jobs.

Somehow, this time, more than any other novel I’ve written I feel more engaged with the whole process, more willing to see it through, complete every stage. I even stayed up late last night finishing off the synopsis. (Which also helped me with the structure.) Well, the first draft, because I know it’s an important document, I know I’ll need to go over it several times until it’s just right. In a similar vein, I’ve signed up for a one day course on “pitching your novel” – just to make sure I make the most of my one shot.

What do you think? If you write have you found that your approach to the whole business of it has changed? Is it me or is it the industry that have changed?

Burning down Hogwarts!

Apologies to those of you who don’t read Harry Potter, but I am father to three boys, aged 4, 8 and 11 so it is common currency in our house. Thinking about the series of books (and films, etc.) I realised something. By the end of the book, a lot of things that were axiomatic in the universe were destroyed. A dragon literally smashes through the wizard bank, Gringotts, and the relationship between wizards and the goblins who run the bank is changed. Coming back to the title of the post, Hogwarts is hugely damaged in an epic battle between good and evil. In interviews, JK Rowling actually said she wanted to kill off a certain number of major characters to indicate the seriousness of the final conflict.

Moving away from the world of Harry Potter, I noticed the same thing in Lord of the Rings. The books concern themselves with the end of one age and the dawning of a new one. Elves leave Middle Earth after thousands of years, dynasties are re-established, the world changes. Even Star Wars is about the end of the Jedi order which stood for a thousand years, guaranteeing peace.

I know these three examples are fantasy or science fiction, but I think they touch on something. Any plot requires a level of threat or upset to the established order. It is one thing that separates literary from commercial fiction. In commercial fiction, often large external matters are at stake, in literary fiction, it is often more personal, internal affairs that are dealt with. In chick-lit again it is personal institutions that are under threat. Often these books will start with the breakdown of a marriage, or a jilting, or a death or redundancy. Not as earth shattering on a global scale, but on the scale of one life, they are seismic events.

For any book not to be dull, you need a hero you can identify with who is under threat. The traditional way to start a book is to introduce the hero, in his world, and then rock that world. Shatter some institutions, put him or her under pressure, and a plot starts to emerge.

This is the classic, planned out way to start a book. You still have to decide which event actually opens the book – usually it’s not the main disruption to the whole plot. Again, to return to Harry Potter, it starts with Harry being rescued after the death of his parents, which illustrates a disrupting event in his life. But then, it establishes his life with his aunt and uncle, before the second big disruption – the invitation to Hogwarts arrives. From there on, as in any plot, you have a series of misfortunes and set-backs before wrapping it up.

As I say, this pattern follows through most successful fiction. When we get bored, my eleven year old and I watch children’s TV and analyse the basic plot points. Even the simplest cartoon still has the basic plot that I’ve outlined above. It appears to be a universal blue-print that we, as human beings and as lovers of stories, seem to need.

I think for a writer it requires a certain kind of bravery, especially if you’re writing a big novel, with large themes. You have, even with a happy-ever-after ending, to set up a world, and a hero, and then put them through troubles and hard times.

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!