Ten things to get your novel published

  1. A solid sense of yourself as a writer

You need a solid sense that writing is what you were born for. The good news is that if you are a writer, then writing is what makes you happiest in all the world. Our writing is an essential part of our heart and spirit and the more we honour it, the happier we become. As our writing grows, we grow. If you have not had that experience yet, try writing more every day and see if you feel a difference.

  1. Love of the writing process

One of my earliest childhood memories is of sitting alone with crayons deep in my own writing world. I can still feel the bliss of those crayons in my fingers. Partly it’s the safety of that cocoon, partly the joy of rolling those words into the right order, of producing something new under the sun. The more we write and study the craft, the better we write and with that comes self-assurance that will help through the feedback and criticism stages. This is a long way from arrogance; it comes from the long process of trial and error, above all from the rewriting process. It comes from a sense that writing is always where your time is best spent, regardless of the outcome.

  1. A safe place to write

Virginia Woolf’s extended essay published in October 1929 was famously titled ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Not all of us can afford this and the creeping closure of libraries threatens our writing spaces. However, we are usually not far from a friendly café and all we need is to train our brains to cut out the noise, take from the surrounding company inspiration as we find it and let writing wrap itself around us.

  1. Write loads

We all do, far more than ever gets published. Musicians practise scales and arpeggios daily and play sections of their latest piece till their fingers are numb. Hemingway talked about his published work being ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of his writing. Incidentally, this New Yorker piece about the great man shows that even he was capable of a truly dreadful sentence now and again: In pencil, he added, “Time is the least thing we have of.” All creative work is trial and error. Will this work? Maybe this will work better? Or that? The more you write, the more confident you will become. That is why I am a huge fan of journal writing. Scribbling for the sake of it loosens the writing muscles, clears the fog and can come up with surprisingly useful things. Go for it. Go for everything. Be fearless!

  1. Choose your best ideas

So much for words. Agents and publishers trade in ideas. What are your stories about?

Choose your best ideas and if a story is not working, it may be the central idea that is deficient. Do not be afraid to dump it and move to something more exciting. Our greatest crime is to waste our readers’ time.

  1. Value your craft

Story-telling technique, grammar, spelling – these are our tools and they all matter very much. In creativity, rules are always there to be broken so it helps to know the rules first. For a reader to feel a sense of your authority, they need to know that if you are breaking rules, you know why even if they do not. They need to trust you.

There is an illusion among civilians (non-writers) that to produce a best-seller, all you have to do is knock out a blog at the kitchen table. This has never been true.

IMG_E1806Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Wilde and Hemingway all rewrote their masterpieces time and again. Nobody ever said this would be easy.

We are lucky, we can learn by reading great books and by seeing great plays, television and films. Drink up all the best stories you can. Go on all the courses you can afford. Read everything about the craft you can find.

  1. A thick skin

Now I’m talking about the rejection period where doggedness is your best friend. These are your learning years too and a professional standard does not come overnight.

  1. Be ready to be edited

Arrogance stops your writing career dead. Agents and publishers always see your script as work in progress that needs their professional input to suit the market. Writing is about rewriting and we all need it. The trick is to relish the company of these professionals who know what they are doing, to take their interest in your writing as a compliment and to enjoy lifting the quality of your work. The next book(s) should be easier.

  1. Have good people around you

Part of the rejection years is about gathering ‘champions’ of your writing, people who are impressed and will remember you but aren’t quite ready to offer you a contract. These people talk to each other. Sometimes they live with each other. So it’s good to keep sending your best writing out so that the positive vibe around you can grow.

The good people you need most are your agent and publisher. In the best of all possible worlds, you and your agent are friends for life and build your career together for mutual benefit. This means you are honest with each other, listen to each other, both work hard and understand why things might not be perfect during tricky times. Like any relationship really. A solid relationship with a publisher is wonderful too. You might write a variety of things over a lifetime, gathering appropriate publishers as you go.

You need good support at home, or none.

A good other half is a great help. A great other half is often one who takes no interest at all in your writing other than to offer a shoulder when a rejection comes and a hug whenever there’s good news. A bad one is worse than being alone. Beware of hooking up with a frustrated writer (this happens more often than you’d think) who wants to shoehorn in on what you’re writing all the time, trying to push and pull you in different directions that somehow never quite satisfy them. Their well-meaning critiques can shrivel your will to write.

Being alone is not so bad. All writers need access to great big slabs of time alone (Jilly Cooper called it writers’ ‘hermit-itis’) and not all other halves have the self-confidence to live with that.

Finally, you need a good writing group. A band of good-hearted people you trust to understand the writing process and who will help you thrive at your own pace, as you help them thrive at theirs. People who understand that if your genre is not their sort of thing, then their feedback might not be your sort of thing either. People with a positive critique ethos, seeking to tell you what works best in your work because, believe me, by the time you have read your words aloud to any group, your bones know all too well what has not worked. We writers are less good at knowing what we’ve done well – we need to be told.

  1. Luck

Did Thomas Jefferson say that the harder we work, the luckier we get? Actors and musicians joke about how ‘overnight success’ sometimes comes after years of hard graft. This is true of writers too. Hilary Mantel spent ten years writing her first book. The Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown’s fourth novel. Beatrix Potter and William Blake published their own work initially, as did Jane Austen.

If you keep writing, keep learning, keep circulating among writers, publishers and agents, keep sending out your best work in a professional way, keep raising your game, that mysterious ingredient luck has a better chance of finding you.

I wish you all the luck in the world.

Happy writing!

When the writing flow stops – 12 TIPS to keep writing

At our last Churchill Writers session, we started off talking about our perfect writing days, when the muse is our best friend and the writing flows like chilled mojito down Papa Hemingway’s throat. Then, of course, chat turned to how we keep our writing going when things are not so good.

We came up with this list – feel free to add your own:

  • Keeping a journal can limber up the writing muscles and clear the mind before you start on your novel. Liz Lochhead has described it as like skimming the top of a good broth before it’s served.
  • Congratulate yourself as much on a good session of wool-gathering or writing exercises as on producing pages. It’s all needed.

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  • A trick I learned from journalism is to get a rough draft down, quickly, last thing before bed if need be, so that you have something to work on next time. Anything is better than nothing.
  • If you aim to write at a regular time each day or week, the writing begins to flow at that appointed time as if it has a special welcome.
  • Targets (1000 words per day, or a chapter a day, for example) work for some people, less so for others.
  • Going for long, slow walks alone, without (if you can) any thought of fitness or time, helps many writers. Charles Dickens walked huge distances, often through the night. It’s about letting your story and characters settle in the rhythm of your body while your eyes rest on the world around. Take some way of writing down stray thoughts, even if it means scribbling on the back of your hand.
  • Writing buddies. Arrange to meet a writing friend in your favourite café for an hour or so. Say hello, and then sit a good distance away from each other for your writing time. When your words are done, it’s time to have a good old natter together. This can be a happy way to have a regular writing slot but it’s important not to let the chat happen first, OK? #learnedthehardway
  • Some days are fallow, don’t let them worry you. Just pick up and carry on next time. In fact, life has tides, highs and lows, and it’s important not to punish yourself or get demoralised if writing is squeezed out by a crisis. Come back to it when you can.
  • If you don’t have the chance to write for a while, try writing in short bursts of ten or twenty minutes. Forget about quality, let the writing energy take you wherever it likes. You can do this on the bus, in a café, anywhere, and it will remind you how much you can achieve, and how deep you can go, in just ten minutes.
  • Reading good books and blogs about the craft can bring you back into your sense of being a writer after a break away.
  • Remember that, however much you procrastinate, and we all do, once you do give writing your time and attention, the words will come. Every time I used to sit down to write, I would spring off the chair to do something else apparently urgent, maybe about a dozen times. Once I realised that my home was not going to catch fire if I just sat there and wrote, I dubbed it ‘hot chair syndrome’ and recognised that it was part of my run-up to writing. And it went away! I love writing and always feel better if a day has writing in it, and I bet you do too.
  • Keeping work in progress private is, for me, a crucial part of protecting the flow; having to show your workings every day to a well-meaning but critical family member can be death to your progress.

Keep it regular. Keep it to yourself. Keep it fun.

More on Sunday. In the mean time, happy scribbling!

BOX OF TRICKS – INTRODUCTION

Whenever readers open a new book, they really do want to like it. They persist in loving books even though the world has never contained so many exciting distractions. We need to make sure we hold their attention more powerfully than ever before, or ours will slip down their busy priority list and may never rise again.

All creative work is a combination of that free flying excitement that some people call inspiration and clever use of tricks and techniques that have evolved over centuries. Composers and painters know this, so do actors, sculptors and musicians of all kinds. It’s the only secret really: the best way for our work to deserve the attention of strangers is to combine the excitement of our unique ideas with learning the craft, year after year. We need both.

What about overnight successes? Creative people in every field who ‘break the mould’? Well, it does happen but usually the mould-breakers have done their homework, put in the hours, and know exactly what tired old moulds they’re breaking.

I have no interest in forcing your story into a shape that does not suit you. All I do here is to introduce you to some accepted tricks of the trade. What you do with them is up to you. So I ask you to read this section and then forget it. Rule 1 applies: if you’re in the grip of an idea that excites you, write it fast, dump everything else and keep writing until it’s done.

If you find your writing getting into difficulties, however, and you can’t see a way out, it might be time to take a rest, be kind to yourself … and take another look over this Box of Tricks section.

Between now and the summer, I’ll be posting about Point of View (today and tomorrow), Show and Tell, through-line, dialogue (including subtext and lying), use of time and seasons, how to handle turning points, using memory and flashback, handling stakes, using hooks and links, finding your beginning and ending and choosing your title. I may think others up along the way.

IMG_E2116London’s Poetry Library

These tricks of the craft are about what makes people put a book down and stop reading. They are about how to keep the pages turning, the kindle pages swiping, until your reader has reached the ending satisfied but wanting more. Most of the tricks have been used in every classic you’ve ever read, and can help non-fiction as well as fiction. Some have been around since Homer’s grandmother, and her mother too.

That doesn’t mean they’re dull or outdated; it means they work.

We’ll start today and tomorrow with looking back over Point of View and use of 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons. Tomorrow too? Well, it’s a holiday in some places. Happy writing and if you have extra writing time on your hands, I hope you enjoy it too!

Happy New Year! What’s coming up next?

Happy New Year to you all and thank you for dropping by, so often and in such numbers. As well as happiness for you and your loved ones, I wish you all a productive, successful writing year. If, by next January, you have a regular writing practice and know roughly where your writing is heading, you will have achieved a lot. That may not sound like a lot but, believe me, it is.

Usually with my writing groups, our second term (in a sort of academic year) is about plot. It’s my favourite: we get to sit around telling each other our favourite stories and chatting about books that have stayed with us through a lifetime.

Usually whenever people look for writing advice, they’re after hints on writing dialogue, show and tell, point of view, that sort of thing. The Box of Tricks. Should I change my usual tilt and go for that now? Then, this morning, I read this.

Storytelling is not about cheap tricks and formulaic writing. It is one of our oldest and most valuable crafts. Character interests us readers first. Plot keeps us engrossed until we reach that fantastic combination of inevitability, surprise and bittersweet longing for more that is a perfect ending. It’s not about writing to a tired formula – I am all for you reinventing the wheel as often and thoroughly as you can, go for it! But if your story has hit buffers and you’re not sure why, then thinking about what has worked in the greatest stories of all time can help.

So, the Box of Tricks is going to wait. We’ll start by looking at the oldest classic plot in the book: Quest. See you here on Sunday!

The hillside exercise

This writing lark can feel like an uphill slog going nowhere. Especially at this time of year, when our writing time can melt away in the festivities and well-meaning loved ones ask us difficult questions like ‘How’s the writing going?’ Not all of us can report a new publishing contract, launch or shortlisting for a prize. So now and again it does us good to sit and rest, look back and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come.

The last time I was among my favourite writing friends, my hillside exercise was this:

2007-06-01 12.26.10I’m up the Mournes, County Down on a clear June day, a bit of bite in the air, pleasure in the body as my boots meet the grass, contentment in being here doing what I’m doing.

There have been dreadful times, toiling hard in squalls on the lower slopes with hailstones driving hard into my back, plastering my hair wet to my face, freezing the rims of my ears. There have been steep patches where the only way I could get anywhere was to narrow my eyes to the square metre in front of me and keep plodding, silent, alone.

People have joined me from time to time – Anji, my first proper agent (then at AP Watt), and Dennis my poetry publisher being my kindest and most lasting champions.

I remember a brush of brief success when a Guardian reviewer asked my publisher to put my novel up for the Guardian First Novel prize. But it wasn’t my first novel – my children’s novel edged to publication first – so she couldn’t, and now that experience feels like a brush from an angel’s wing, a dreamt blessing from another world. But there have been breaks in the clouds, widening patches of clear blue on leaden days, when a contract for publication of my children’s novel arrived eighteen months after submission with no chit chat or connection in between. And when Dennis Greig of Lapwing accepted my submission of poems, with incredible speed and enthusiasm, in 2010.

Lately, the going is grassy, warm, brighter. A few wee flowers cheer me. Now and again I even sing to myself as my palms press strength down through my knees into my boots. The higher I climb, the higher the sky rises. The air is fine and free. It’s time to turn around and glance back.

The tough bits of the climb are invisible. No shale and scree meet the eye at all, just stretches of green, the odd boulder and a surprisingly clear, neat path. Cows in fields below are smudges of a sharpened pencil. Cars are glints in the granite. My climb, my effort in getting here, where is all that? Gusts in the heather, rufflings in clouds.

On a peak not far away, there’s a happy launch for my next book of poetry.

Rosie Scenic 1

The ground dips between here and there, masked by whins. I can’t see what the going is like. Further off, steep, sharp, dignified, is a beautiful granite summit garlanded by pale mist. Its slopes are white-grey, luminous in the sunlight, and I’ll need all my skills to climb it – publication of my non-fiction book-in-progress.

I’m up off this boulder now, ready to keep at the climb. Happy with the privilege of being here, in love with this writing world.

I wish you joy in your writing climb too, wherever it takes you.

Love and many thanks to my late father, RR Johnston, for these photographs. He adored and climbed the Mourne mountains all his life.

Fictionalising real people

Flaubert said of Madame Bovary that she was himself. We can’t help putting something of ourselves into just about every character we create. What if the basis of your fictional character is someone you know but you don’t want them to know it?

A warning. Imagine that your book has been published and your friends are around you at your launch.

2009-06-30 19.00.13The minute they open that book of yours, many of them will scour it looking for themselves. And they’ll find themselves in the most unlikely places.

This seems to be first cousin of their belief that everything in your book literally happened to you, no matter how far your book’s world is from your life. All we writers can do is shrug and say we made it up:

‘So you killed your husband and buried him in a volcano in Borneo?’

‘It’s fiction but if you want to think that, feel free.’

‘But that sober, handsome warrior chief who’s seven feet tall and wins prizes for his shortbread, he’s the image of your husband, isn’t he?’

‘If you want to think that, feel free.’

As long as they buy your book, they can think what they like.

You do want to avoid libel though, as it’s expensive and exhausting and publishers do not enjoy it. So how do you fictionalise a real, living character?

It’s simple really: just change a few vital things.

On one side of your page or screen, jot down a few details about the real person you want not to write about: full name and nickname, physical description, age, ethnicity/provenance, education, finances/job, family status, address, living alone or not, essential elements of personality, sexual orientation, secrets and world view. A few sentences of pub conversation are enough for that last one.

Down the other side of your page, name your fictional character and take a few minutes to imagine him or her. Then, opposite the list you’ve made for the real person, describe your fictional character aspect for aspect.

Make sure that some important aspects are radically different from the real person. Two or three will be enough.

Now you are ready to do your character interviews afresh to build and discover this new person. Drill down deep, unlock those secrets and that voice, and soon you should find yourself in the company of someone unrecognisably different.

That’s all there is to it! It’s especially important to give your fictional person a different name from the real one – please don’t be tempted to give them the same initials or even the same rhythm in the name – and this exercise works especially well if you alter age, gender, education, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation.

It’s worth giving a thought to why you are incorporating a real person into your novel when there are so many wonderful characters to be made up. Have a private scribble about why you feel you must write about this person. Why do they fascinate you so much? Do they encapsulate something about your story’s theme that makes their presence invaluable? Or – it’s important to be honest with yourself now – are you writing this real person into your work because you want to have the last word in some way, even revenge?

If the last is the case, your book may well suffer. My character interview shows you how to combine closeness to your characters with (towards the end) the vital detachment that keeps your story in balance and stops it straying into cliche.

Next week we’ll look at how we write about long-term friends.

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Have a happy writing week!

POINT OF VIEW made ridiculously simple

You’ve been quarrying into your characters’ depths until you know them as well as you know yourself or better. What’s the best way now to give your writing a professional sheen and bypass several experimental drafts while you tell their story?

Let’s enjoy a scribble together

Think of an important moment in your main character’s story. An encounter, a fight or battle, a crucial discovery.

Take a few minutes to scribble-chat your way into your character at that moment on your page or screen until that character’s place in the scene is crowding your imagination and the writing flows freely.

Now, sit back for a moment and consider the mental jumble we all carry through every day of our lives. It’s usually a mixture of:

Our physical comfort – are we too hot or cold, our clothing too tight or loose, are we hungry, thirsty, in need of the loo or a rest?

Our wider context – have we just been sacked, fallen in love, won money, bought a car, fallen ill, wakened up?

Our mood – are we feeling excited, content, angry, fed up, exuberant, needful?

Our agenda – there is always a range of things we want at any given moment, from world peace to a burger. Which is the most pressing? Which has gone on for longest? Can you distinguish urgent and important?

Now let’s go back to your character’s big moment. Concentrate on just before it happens and let your character tell you about their mental jumble. Their worry list, how they feel, what they want and need. Blend your writing into a monologue where your character talks in his/her voice for at least 10 minutes. Write quickly and freely, let the character’s voice take you.

Congratulations. You have just written with a clear, strong single point of view (POV). And you’ve got something to edit. The more you do of this exercise, the more you’ll do it in every draft first time. It takes you where your reader wants to be.

POV is simple really. Ask yourself, ‘Whose head are we in?’ at a given moment in the story. Whose eyes are we looking through?

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That’s all there is to it.

Drama on a screen or theatre stage shows us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard to help us feel what those characters are going through and it can feel real in the way being in a room with other people is real. But do we really know what they feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters do tell each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue given direct to the audience. But they could be, and often are, lying to us. (I’m thinking of Alfie or Iago in Othello.) How do we know what’s genuinely going on?

Poems and non-fiction can pull this off sometimes too but, if you ask me, fiction is far and away best at it. This single ingredient in powerful novels has changed the world.

Why all the POV fuss?

Sometimes when POV is ‘taught’ to fiction writers, the thing strays into spreadsheets and Graeco-Roman labels of almost medical complexity. We can end up more confused than when we started and that gets in the way of our writing flow.

Two things are going on what’s usually described as POV. They are linked – all storytelling is – but there’s nothing to lose in treating them separately and everything to gain.

The two elements are these:

  • Whose head are we in as we read this story? and
  • Are you as author choosing to let your characters tell the story in their own voices (as I or we: 1st person) or are they telling it through you as she, he, it or they (known as 3rd person)? This is what grammarians mean when they talk about point of view, hence the overlap.

One of the big leaps into writing to a professional standard is clear use of ‘Whose head are we in’ so let’s leave the discussion of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person for another day.

What are our POV alternatives?

You can stay in the point of view of a single character for your whole story, or you can guide your readers through several viewpoints in turn. It’s up to you. The important thing is to decide and stick to it.

Advantages of one character’s POV:

  • Your story has a better chance of being immediate, clear and gripping.
  • Writing internal thoughts, hopes and dreams comes easily if you’re used to the scribble-chats we do here with characters.
  • Your character describes and judges others, which can be fun.
  • You can show the character’s voice, tone and accent without being restricted to dialogue, although a thick accent or dialect for a whole book can be off-putting.
  • It gets you as writer out of the way.
  • Your character could be honest with the reader or could be an ‘unreliable narrator’ who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out and take the reader by surprise.

Disadvantages of a single POV:

  • Your character has to be engaging or the reader won’t stay with you.
  • You do need to know that character very well to be convincing.
  • You’re restricted to the knowledge, perspective and experience of that one character. There are ways to get information onto your page other than through that a single viewpoint (news reports, found letters, misdirected or wrongly cc’d emails etc., nosey informers about another’s behaviour, facebook, overhearing, searching another’s phone for texts etc., finding journals, bank or other statements, mistakes eg. the wrong flat) but it takes some thinking about.
  • How do you describe your character externally? The truth is, you don’t have to. Readers are surprisingly happy to make it up for themselves. It’s more engaging anyway to describe how people feel about themselves from the inside and in other people’s reactions. If you really do want the reader to see your character, please avoid the mirror scene in the first chapter, it’s been done to death.

Which single character do I choose?

We will come to that another day. Meanwhile imagine The Great Gatsby told to us by Gatsby himself instead of his slightly shy cousin, Nick. Or Brideshead Revisited told by Cordelia, the youngest member of the Marchmain family. Or The Wolf Wilder told by the boy soldier, Alexei, instead of by Feo herself. Or Pride and Prejudice told as Lydia’s story. Any of these versions could have worked brilliantly too.

Several viewpoints

The advantages of writing from the point of view of several characters are:

  • Information comes from several sources, layering on the suspense and mystery.
  • Readers can identify better with several characters.
  • We all have different truths – it feels real.
  • You avoid shoe-horning in information that a single viewpoint character could not know.
  • You can use dramatic irony more easily, where the reader knows more than a character.
  • It gives the reader a breadth of experience in terms of location, experience and company.

Disadvantages of several POVs:

First, it’s important to make it absolutely clear to the reader who we are with from time to time. We write from the top of our concentration and emotional reserves. Readers often read to relax. They might be in noisy places like family kitchens or train carriages. They may be feeling less than well or enjoying your book with wine beside them at the end of a workday.

Clarity is vital. It’s a big part of your reader’s sense of your authority as a writer: if you lose their confidence, they might well put your book down with a vague sense of dissatisfaction and forget to pick it up again. It’s not just about being kind to tired readers. It’s about strong storytelling.

Many writers give characters a chapter each at a time, e.g.: Junk by Melvyn Burgess, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. The character’s name makes a good, clear chapter heading. In the first three or four lines the character’s voice and thought patterns should make it obvious.

The second disadvantage of handling several POVs is the temptation to switch viewpoint within sections. Many fledgling writers swivel in and out of the minds of several characters within a paragraph, even within a single sentence. That can give a panoramic view, if it’s what you’re after, but it risks dizzying your reader, interrupting immersion in your story. It can also distract you as author from plumbing down to the levels of emotional honesty your readers want.

That said, I’ve just turned up a POV subtlety in a book called Longbourn by Jo Baker. It’s a wonderful example of a success by a first-time author – hurray! – and she uses POV to bring her lovers together. Copyright law forbids me to quote at length but on page 208 of my copy, we experience the scene first through Sarah: ‘She could feel his hand on the back of her neck.’ Then six lines later: ‘For a long moment she didn’t move or speak. Then he felt it against his chest: she shook her head.’ Knitting the two viewpoints like this has the magical effect of lifting us away from one character’s mind to see the two of them and their hug. At the same time we experience their closeness, heart to heart, alongside them.

  • Don’t be afraid to go in close beside your character and stay there.
  • Stay as close as you can to one character at a time. It’s more satisfying for your reader and easier for you to write.
  • By being aware of how you use POV, you can avoid dizzying pitfalls and use it to create magical effects.

Happy writing!