An agent or publisher is interested – what happens next? #getpublished

Congratulations. An agent or publisher is showing enough interest to want to speak with you.

There is usually a slow process of meeting each other, to see if you will get along. The agent or publisher will shower your story with praise, then probably suggest changes to your script and see how you respond. Sometimes they are slight tweaks and can be fixed in a week or two. Other times, you can be asked to do substantial redrafts that take months. Throughout all this, they are looking to see how you handle the situation.

They want someone who responds quickly and takes advice well. If you let yourself be distracted by other pressures IMG_3442

or decide now is the time to close your laptop and take a gap year, IMG_3443you risk losing their attention.

Agents first

Do not expect a contract at an early stage although it can happen. Agents are more likely to be prompt about contracts than publishers and will send you a standard form of around a single page. In July we looked in detail at what agents do.

If a contract does come your way, keep breathing and think about it. You do not have to accept it straight away. You can ask for thinking time if there’s another agent/publisher you’re hoping to hear from. And it’s a good idea to consult the UK’s Society of Authors or a lawyer about the legal terms. There’s usually little you can renegotiate in standard provisions but it helps to be clear about what they mean.

As soon as the agent is happy with your script and has taken you on, your script goes out to chosen publishers. It came as a shock to me that agents get rejections too but it does happen. Maybe someone just pipped yours to the post or the heat has gone off a particular genre in the space of weeks. I have met an author whose agent was passionate about his thriller and spent five years hawking it around the world, but could not place it. There is a long history of classic novels being rejected many times. Rejection does not mean your agent is incompetent or that your novel is worthless. Stay calm, polite and positive – and keep writing the next thing.

The upside is that, at this level, you know your work will have been carefully read and that your agent will sift and report on feedback. If not, go elsewhere.

A publisher says yes

With undying thanks to your agent, you are sitting in the offices of a real, live, smiling publisher who has your work on the table. (In July, I posted detail about what publishers can do for us and when. My first post is here, and part 2 is here.) The publisher’s editor has put you through yet more rewrites and has satisfied the marketing and money people at the new acquisitions meeting that this deserves a chance. You’ve got a deal!

Congratulate yourself again – very few new writers reach this stage. Most publishers take at most one first-time novelist a year. A publication date is set and the cover’s agreed. You have more work to do now:

  • Your help will be vital with publicity and this starts before publication. Do not expect to get much of your next book written over the next weeks and months.
  • Prepare your own website if you have not already. Start blogging about your new book and how you came to write it. Podcasts go down well too.
  • It’s never too early to start your social media spinning.
  • Make friends with your local booksellers. They’re lovely and are usually delighted to meet local authors. Your publisher should provide you with some free publicity copies to hand out.
  • Contact local newspapers and blogs to ask for interviews and reviews.
  • Plan your book launch.
  • And try above all to keep writing the next thing. You’ll need it sooner than you think.

They’re asking you to buy some of your own books?

Here comes one of the hardest facts about today’s publishing world: your publisher may well require you to buy some copies of your book yourself, at discount. I first encountered it in 2009 when it was described as a contribution to printer’s costs. It’s very common now, the idea being that it encourages you to market it. The discount (paying 40% of the full price is not uncommon) also means that if you sell at 80%, you are still making more profit, more quickly, than waiting for royalties.

Fame and fortune at last?

Most first novels sell fewer than a thousand copies. That’s why the Booker prize was invented, to help literary novels reach a wider audience. Publishers and agents hope that by the time they publish your third or fourth, preferably in a series or the same genre, the public will have noticed you and the whole exercise will become financially worth their while. They are gamblers at heart. You may be one of the lucky ones who has a substantial advance from a big publisher who is going to flog your book with a great big publicity budget. I hope so. IMG_E1806Even if you’re not … You have become a strange new creature, a published author. That can lead you to other ways of making money (coaching, talks, radio and television appearances). It means too that people see you differently. Instead of the friend they are used to, the one who spends most of the time alone and gives a slightly dejected shrug when asked how the writing’s going, they see a confident, new you with a book in your hand. That book has your name printed on it and they are being asked to buy copies. After all the years of lonely scribbling, there is no finer sensation than welcoming friends to your book launch and watching them queue, smiling and laughing, for you to sign copies for them.

Congratulations, you’ve made it. It has all been worthwhile.

I wish you the very best of luck and happy writing!

How to avoid painful feedback– losing track of time

Times are bad,’ he said, ‘children don’t obey their parents any more and everyone is writing a book.’ That was Cicero in 43BC. Everyone’s life is full of majestic stories but crafting them into a novel takes skill, perseverance and several rewrites that can tax the brain. That’s why writers need this feedback stage so much.

Feedbackers who give you clear, itemised lists of where you can improve your draft might make your teeth grind but at least they’re useful. It can be hard to know how to react when they are vague, unsure. They say they got lost, couldn’t finish it or, worst of all, they got bored. Bored?!! You think, how can they be bored, you’ve sweated blood over that draft …

Generalised dissatisfaction is often down to plot problems. In other words, does your story arc slacken and need a tweak or two? If you’re sure it’s not that, then it may be your use of time that’s confusing them. Let’s think about how you’re using memory and flashback.

MEMORY EXERCISES: 5 minutes each

  • Your main character is telling you in the 1st person about an important memory from early childhood, many years ago.
  • Your character is alone, quietly remembering the same event only 5 or 10 years after it happened. This can be in 1st or 3rd person, it’s up to you.
  • The day after this event happened, your character is telling someone else in your story about it.

This is about how memory alters with age and distance from the thing remembered. It also shows us that while we remember, however vividly, we stay in the present, aware of who and how we are now, while remembering.

IMG_2560

Manet, The Railway: 1873

Flashbacks are different.

First, let’s distinguish psychological flashbacks, where involuntary memories of traumatic experiences can invade a person’s present so vividly that it feels as if they are almost happening afresh, there and then.

Story-telling flashbacks are devices conjured by you, the writer, to bring the story from one of the story’s time zones to another for the reader’s benefit. They are like that bit of old movies where the screen goes wiggly and the characters are twenty years younger, until the screen goes wiggly again and they are back in the harsh, unhappy (or otherwise) present.

Those old films can teach us a thing or two, namely:

  • It’s important that readers are clear when you’re going into flashback and coming out again. They often read to relax with a mind full of work stress, children playing close by or with a busload of distracting people around them. If we are going to do something unrealistic like fiddle about in our use of time, we should guide them confidently.
  • The shorter your flashbacks, the more easily your reader will keep track of what’s going on. If a flashback goes on too long, you risk losing people. (Unless your whole book is in flashback and your reader knows that.)

FLASHBACK EXERCISES

  1. Your character is doing something mundane: cooking, driving, maybe daydreaming at work. What triggers the flashback? Hover there and concentrate on that moment. Then describe to yourself your character’s sensual awareness. Go through the five main senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) and heat and cold, tension and relaxation, readiness or sleepiness and so on. Find one or two predominant ones – if your character is washing up, has he paused to feel the water swoosh around the hands? Noticed an aroma or something out of a window? Now take your character into the flashback and write it. Using that sensual experience, the swoosh of water again, come back out of the flashback and write the character’s reflections on it. Bring the reader securely back to the book’s present world.
  2. Now, what did you want that flashback to do? Explore this free writing, for yourself.

Lastly today, let’s try a version of our first memory exercise:

  • Your character, many years after the incident in a flashback, is telling you (the writer) about it for the first time, in the first person.
  • Explore on your page or screen how these exercises have shown you how memory and flashback differ. Both can be exciting, heart-breaking, immediate in their different ways – what do they have to offer in their different ways?

Next week we will start looking at how to send your novel out and get it published. Exciting!

Happy writing.

 

FEEDBACK ETIQUETTE – or how to keep your friends

You’ve revised your novel until your fingers are numb and you can’t wait to show it to a grateful world. Here is some advice, learned the hard way, about feedback.

There are three main kinds of feedback:

Proof-reading  

By this I mean the whole caboodle that includes spelling, grammar, plurals where they shouldn’t be, and muddled tenses. Re-arranging your story during edits inevitably brings the need for these and we weed them out the best we can before we show our work to anyone else. But they are tenacious. Don’t blame yourself, it’s normal.

Proof-reading is best handled separately from the larger story aspects as our brains can only do one or the other well at a time. Ask a trusted friend (or pay an expert) to proof-read for you. Check it yourself several times. Do this before it goes to your feedbackers as mistakes will deflect them from what you want them to do.

General feedback

Do people engage with your writing, your characters, your story? In other words, does your book work? If so, what works best about it? Which characters sing out most? If something feels not quite right, where does an off-kilter feeling start? Is your plot arc working? Where do readers feel able to leave your story down and perhaps forget to come back?

Experts

Have you written about jobs or conditions you have not experienced yourself? Research is great but now is the time to ask for a reading by people who have lived it, if you possibly can.

Does your story take place somewhere you have never been? If you cannot afford to go there, find somebody who knows the place.

Do you feel pretty confident with your early research or your experience in a job years ago?  It’s always worth bringing it up to date. Most people are more than happy to talk about their work.

Your book is set, say, in the 1960s and you’ve spent months researching – but have you spoken to people who lived then? You could find your whole perspective tilted and enriched.

FEEDBACK ETIQUETTE

Courtesy to your reader:

It really is best not to part with your draft too soon. It’s a draft and your reader will know that but:

  • Have a final proof-read. It’s extraordinary how excited readers can be about mistakes in the draft, and how deeply it distracts them from the qualities in your story.
  • Is your reader ready for it? S/he has said yes in principle but please check before you send it that now is a good time. Otherwise days and weeks might pass before the reader gets around to it, you’ll be agonised waiting and it’ll get embarrassing.
  • Ask whether your reader would like a typescript (paper copy, at your expense, for the reader to keep) or a screen download. IMG_2456This is their choice: you want your reader to be as comfortable with the experience as possible.
  • If it’s paper, make sure it looks clean and smart. Something that has another reader’s coffee stains and scribblings will not get you the attention you need.
  • Do NOT pester your reader during the reading time. If you see her/him regularly, try really hard not to bring it up. Readers will do the job when they’re ready and badgering them will not help them do a better job.
  • Thank your reader afterwards: tea/drink/lunch/dinner, whatever you can afford, PLUS an invitation as an honoured guest to your launch when the time comes, an acknowledgment (properly spelt) in the published book and a free (at your expense) signed copy.
  • Don’t ask your reader to read a subsequent draft unless they offer. It’s time-consuming so once is enough – and you want fresh eyes to help you each time.
  • If your reader doesn’t finish your draft, don’t be upset. We can’t please everyone. Just thank them for their time and generosity and ask where s/he stopped reading. S/he may have stopped for many reasons which are nothing to do with your writing but finding out where a reader felt able to abandon the story can help you fix a weak spot.

Courtesy to your writer:

  • When a friend sends you a draft for your feedback, please do your utmost to read it as soon as you can. Every minute will be agony for the writer while s/he waits.
  • Useful feedback comes from reading the draft twice: once for the buzz (allowing yourself to be carried along by it) and secondly to make deeper observations, connections and suggestions.
  • Keep the writer posted of progress, saying for example that you’ve finished the first reading and will be starting the second the weekend after next. You do not have to make comments at this stage as you may revise your views.
  • When giving your feedback, the usual rules apply: praise first, then points of criticism and an overall view. You do not have to suggest improvements: it’s not your book.
  • Don’t expect lunch, dinner, acknowledgements etc., even though it’s in the advice to writers above.
  • If the book is not your sort of thing, don’t be afraid to say so. If you can’t stand elves and your best friend wants you to read their Middle Earth spin-off, it’s best by far just to hand it back and say you can’t wait for the launch and will read it then. There is no point in struggling with a book that doesn’t suit you and your feedback will not be as useful as you think.
  • Don’t forget that your carefully considered feedback is only advice. The writer may well ignore it. Try not to notice – and stay friends.
  • You can keep the typescript.

How to use feedback:

Feedback can feel like evisceration of you and your book. All too many feedbackers will give some brief, dilute praise followed by yards of detailed criticism. It is entirely normal for a writer to blink away the compliments and take each word of the criticism as a personal wound. So –

  • Always be grateful. Your reader has taken time and care and some of what they say might help you.
  • If the feedback is in writing, leave it for a while before you look. When you feel ready take your time going through it, marking what you think might be useful, what less so.
  • There is no need to comment on the feedback when you thank your reader.
  • If your feedback session is in person, resist the urge to argue the toss. IMG_2457Take full notes. A lot of what is said will whoosh past your ears, gone for ever, and some of it could be invaluable.
  • Look after yourself during this phase, it can be more wearying than you think.
  • Ask questions wherever you need more information, especially of your expert readers.
  • Say you are consulting a number of people and will think carefully about all views. Make no promises: it will be your decision where you choose to go with your feedback.
  • There is no need to rush into your response. You can put it all away for a while until your head clears.
  • Re-read the compliments often, you need them.

You might well find that your readers disagree: it’s not at all unusual to find that one feedbacker can’t stand a scene and another says that’s their favourite bit. You might also find that some critique produces a knot in your guts of protest or outrage. Maybe your book has been misunderstood. All this is useful to know. My practice is to pot-hole about it all – to chat with myself on the page or screen about what I want out of the book, out of a character or a chapter – until things settle into clarity.

It is your book and no-one else’s. Can you think of any classic novel that is universally loved? Exactly, and yours won’t please everybody either so let’s crack on.

My feedback practice is to gather up all the feedback of all kinds, making no comments at the time. I like hard copy for this stage so I print it all out with the names removed and put it into one of those cardboard A4 boxes. Then I have a great big session where I look at it all and mark up what I think works. I ditch the rest and get to work.

Here is the hard part: the most difficult criticism to hear may well be what you need to hear most. It can take time to sink in – there’s no rush.

There is absolutely no need to promise anyone that you are changing your book at their behest. In fact, a feedbacker who wants to railroad you is not your best help. They are often other writers or would-be writers who want you to write their book for them. Feel free to ignore. By the time your book is published, your feedbackers will probably have forgotten what they said.

You have the last word, enjoy it.*

 

Finding a publisher – how did the Brontes do it?

You’ve finished the first draft and maybe the second of your novel, so the chances are, you’ve sent it out to a publisher or agent. Good for you – it’s a sign of your confidence in your talent, so why not?

You’ve heard nothing back yet? Or the news has not been encouraging?

It’s time to remember Charlotte Bronte’s experiences. Every time a rejection comes, I recommend a look through her Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, written in 1850 as a preface to her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. We are indebted to Mick Armitage who has given us the full text online .

IMG_2432

Anne, Emily and Charlotte (right) are above in their brother Bramwell’s famous painting. His attempts to convert himself into a post, in the middle, still manage to dominate the canvas.

Charlotte’s main purpose was to give herself and her sisters their real names as authors of their works, especially their poetry: ‘This notice has been written, because I felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil.’ In the process, she describes situations that writers, especially those from outside the traditional canon, still know all too well.

‘We did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality and, for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.’ Step forward please, JK Rowling, PD James, Al Kennedy, AM Homes, Lionel Shriver who have hidden their genders in neutral or masculine names today. How many others can you name who are still skirting around this truth?

‘The bringing out of our little book (of poetry) was hard work.’ Well, yes. ‘As was to be expected, neither we nor our poems were at all wanted … The great puzzle lay in the difficulty of getting answers of any kind from the publishers to whom we applied.’ The bluebottle stage where our confidence feels like a fly bashing its head against solid glass searching for any gap to fly though.

She goes on: ‘Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued.’ And there lies the biggest ingredient (it seems to me) in success. Not only talent but faith in that talent and the courage to persist. ‘The fixed conviction (Charlotte) held, and hold, of the worth of these poems has not indeed received the confirmation of much favourable criticism; but I must retain it notwithstanding.’

Charlotte describes how, notwithstanding the initial reception given to their poetry, they set about writing a story each: Wuthering Heights (Emily), Agnes Grey (Anne) and a ‘narrative in one volume’ of her own. ‘These MSS,’ she wrote, ‘were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.’ The perfect word: obtruded.

I met an agent once who had turned up on her first day of work at a new agency. A post-it was stuck to a huge tatty typescript on top of a vast pile; it read, ‘Please don’t ignore this’. Up to her eyes in pressure, she didn’t get around to it – to discover later that it was an early draft of the first Harry Potter book.

Charlotte goes on: ‘At last “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey” were accepted on terms somewhat impoverishing to the two authors.’ Such a familiar situation today. ‘Currer Bell’s (Charlotte’s) book found acceptance nowhere,’ she says with heartbreak in every word, ‘nor any acknowledgement of merit, so that something like the chill of despair began to invade (her) heart.’

Finally, a letter came. Charlotte opened it trembling ‘in dreary expectation of finding two hard, hopeless lines, intimating that [publisher X] were not disposed to publish.’

Her next lines should be engraved in gold on the desk of any writer who wishes to follow this traditional route. The letter ‘declined, indeed, to publish that tale, for business reasons, but it discussed its merits and demerits so courteously, so considerately, in a spirit so rational, with a discrimination so enlightened, that this very refusal cheered the author better than a vulgarly expressed acceptance would have done. It was added that a work in three volumes would meet with careful attention.’

Business reasons. If only that publisher could turn back time. But if a good agent or publisher replies, spelling your name correctly and giving detailed feedback on what you’ve written, give yourself a great big pat on the back. It’s a vast step forward. You can get so deeply used to receiving rejections, as Charlotte did, that you miss this but it’s big. Your calling card has worked and they want more.

It’s also worth noting that the three-book deal was alive and well even then. Meanwhile Charlotte’s one-volume tale (The Professor) was still, as she said, ‘plodding its weary round in London’ until eventually ‘friendly and skilful hands took it in’. The three sisters’ books ‘lingered’ in the press for months (I know this feeling so well) while the publisher changed management. When publication day did arrive, ‘critics failed to do them justice’.

Charlotte wrote this after a dreadful time in which consumption (tuberculosis) had taken the lives of Bramwell, Emily and Anne within eighteen months. It is difficult to read the words without tears.

At each setback, they worked to make their writing better. It’s what we all do: revise, edit, rewrite it again. Improve and improve again so that the next setback won’t happen. Over the coming weeks, we’ll look here at the tidying revisions most drafts need – about calendars and timelines (they sometimes go astray after a round of edits), plot arcs and slack passages, looking again at your structure, and working on your best beginning and end. Let’s take the pain out of these bluebottle times by making your draft the very best it can be.

In the mean time, let’s have another go at the mountainside exercise, reminding ourselves far we’ve come.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

 

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.

IMG_2388

  • 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!

THREE GREAT TRICKS FOR REVISING YOUR DRAFT

Your draft is covered in lines, highlights and lots of great big ticks. What happens next?

IMG_2377

Have you ever thought of sending your novel to a script agency?* That can be a useful step but writers are sometimes disappointed by the feedback because the agency or editor seems to have misunderstood the book. Script advisors try to find the heart of your story, your main narrative drive. First novels in particular can have everything in them including several kitchen sinks, so the advisor recommends the strongest line that they think will sell. The trouble is, it may not be what the writer had in mind, at all, leaving him or her confused and upset. Some writers then lose faith in critiques and even, sad to say, have a sense that their critiqued story is not worth working on any more. Writers get a better return on their money if they work first on bringing out the essence of what they and their characters want to say.

In other words, your second draft will be much better. Whose first drafts are perfect? Hemmingway knew the answer. The place to start is your through-line.

1st TRICK – ROSIE’S PLOT CLINIC

Summarise your plot roughly and quickly. Approach this like an exercise; there’s no need to be self-conscious or to trim as you go, no-one will see it but you. If you can, do it without looking at the draft itself or your notes. You are after the excitement you get in a writing exercise where the thing takes off and is carried along by the power of its own adventure.

IMG_2372

By Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)

One or two thousand words should be enough. If your summary wants to go in a new direction, something you haven’t thought of or written yet, that’s fine. Write it anyway. If you end up somewhere you do not want your story to go, never mind. Save it and have another go.

If this exercise does not come to you easily, try this shorter approach:

EXERCISE

Summarise your plot in 10 words, then 20, then 50, then 100.

These little summaries are more difficult than they look but you will need them later:

  • When someone introduces you to a literary agent at a party, you will have about ten seconds to grab her attention – that’s where your 10 words summary comes in handy.
  • If she hasn’t looked behind you for someone more saleable after ten seconds, it’s time to expand into your 20 words.
  • Your 50 words summary can go into your submission to an agent or publisher when the time is right. (Not yet.)
  • Your 100 words summary can be the basis of publicity like the blurb on your book’s jacket.

Doing these little outlines at this stage concentrates you on your story’s gist. Keep them in a file, together with other versions you doodle and rewrite from time to time in idle moments.

WHAT IS YOUR THROUGH-LINE?

Let’s remind ourselves about through-line: the spine of your story, the string that holds your chapter pearls together, the engine of it all. Its elements are these:

  • A question
  • that is specific, emotional and urgent (will Odysseus find home, how does Rose survive the Titanic’s sinking, what will become of Lizzie Bennet)
  • about a particular character or characters (will the Watership Down rabbits find somewhere safe to live),
  • that should, one way or another, be answered by the story.

Toy with discovering and refining your through-line for as long as it takes. Just keep thinking and summarising and scribbling until, click, there it is. The clearer you are about your through-line, the more successful your story will be.

2nd TRICK – CHARACTERS

Now is the time to have another good old chat with your main characters too, so back to the character questionnaire

Some characters arrive fully formed and change very little while you are writing your draft. Others morph as your story develops. In both cases it can be a good idea to revisit your character questionnaire to see what comes forward. If nothing else, it will free up any writing muscles that might have got sluggish during your rest.

If it feels like too much of a chore, so be it. Let’s sit on the sofa with the red pen and read that first draft through again, this time more specifically.

Take one of your main characters at a time, and reread your draft as if you are that character:

  • Summarise that character’s storyline as you go. Is it consistent?
  • Does that single strand feel true in itself? Does it feel true for that character?
  • Are there gaps or jumps, anything that could do with explanation? Any plot holes where for example your character knows something he or she hasn’t been told yet? Be hard on yourself because your readers will be.
  • Is your character’s voice consistent in the dialogue, not only the accent and content (both important) but also the world view, age, ethnicity etc. Does the voice reflect the character’s growth through the story?

By now, you may feel like doing a bit more of the character questionnaire. Time spent that way is never wasted.

3rd TRICK – SLEEPING

Being with your draft every day is crucial now or your energy will drop. My favourite trick is this.

Before you go to sleep, read over what you’ve done with your draft that day. You’re just reading, no need for this to feel like a chore, and make a few short notes for attention next day. Then sleep.

IMG_2378

This does something inexplicably marvellous: it bakes everything together in your brain (or little devils whisper in your sleeping ears, like these around Botticelli’s Mars) so that in the morning you will go happily to your writing again and it will be more alive. If a thought or two wakes you in the night, note it down and go back to sleep. Some of those notes will be great. Not all of them.

Revising your draft can take a while but somehow it can be exhilarating and less exhausting than producing your first draft because the road map is there in front of you.

Next week we’ll look at your plot arc.

*I do not offer a script reading service, by the way.

Happy writing!

Finding your way around my blog

To help you find posts from the past, I’ve added a guide to my home page, like a long list of contents.

In August and September last year, posts are about getting started (including things not to worry about), from late September to December we look at character, in January this year we started learning plot skills and from April posts are about what Stephen King calls the Box of Tricks: aspects of the writing craft.

This week, we’re busy rewriting, polishing to the highest standard, with a section to follow between now and the summer, about getting your novel out to the public.

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

The First Draft High

You’ve just finished your first draft and you’re right to be very proud of yourself. Particularly if you’ve done a lot of polishing and redrafting, you might well think it’s perfect. You smile at yourself in mirrors and tell strangers at the bus stop that you’ve ‘written a book’. You are dreaming of resigning from the day job and can barely resist browsing property websites to see what Scottish castles are for sale close to JK Rowling. You might even have sent it out to a publisher or two and can’t understand why it’s not immediately on the best seller lists.

This is the First Draft High. Congratulate yourself: you have achieved something most writers do not manage. You have created characters and put in the time and work to complete a story for them. You know the satisfaction of that last full stop. It’s a great time to sit on the hillside and look back at how far you’ve come.

Then take a deep breath and look upwards at the summit. I’m sorry to break it to you but there is probably still quite a climb ahead before your book is ready for strangers.

If you’re still reading this, you have the makings of a published writer. Your first draft is like the first row of squares on this game of snakes and ladders: there are many more squares to climb before you are home. Except that snakes and ladders is a game of pure chance. Writing is not – there are steps you can take to improve your chances.

Writing group

If you haven’t already, find yourself a group of kindly, like-minded souls you can rely on for encouragement and fun. (Sorry but it’s a sad fact that friends and family might not always understand the writing process, nor to be as much on your side as you might like.) If you always come away from your writing group feeling low and out of joint, find another one or set up a one of your own. You need a combination of support, thoughtful review and fun. In the words of one of my most treasured writing teachers, most writers are ‘convalescents’ and need tenderness as well as criticism to thrive.

Keep studying the craft

Read everything you can get your hands on about this writing craft.

Now that you have that first draft under your belt, you know better what you are looking for and can go back with fresh eyes to the many resources that have helped you get this far. There will still be more gold there to discover.

When I started my writing groups in 2011, there were many writing courses available. Mine were always different from the main stream in two main ways. Anyone was welcome as long as they had a passion to write. There was and is no sifting or qualifying process and my writers might not have written anything before. That does not stop them being full of great stories and progressing to fine writing careers.

The second thing is that writers are welcome to stay in my groups as long as they like; some are still with me all these years later. My courses follow pretty much the same cycle each year – character, plot, tricks of the craft – with no sense of coming to an end. The writers keep finding new aspects of the craft to excite them and intensify their writing, delving deeper each year as their needs and talent develop.

In other words, we all keep learning this wonderful craft all our lives, and what fun it is.

A room of our own

Virginia Woolf said in 1929 that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction“.

IMG_2314

Virginia Woolf pained by her sister Vanessa Bell

She was writing in a world dominated by men of a particular educational slant and her words apply to all of us, whoever we are. But it’s counsel of perfection and lack of a whole room ‘of our own’ needn’t hold us back. Jane Austen wrote at the kitchen table, young Ted Hughes at a small table in the hall. I’m a believer in giving your writing self as much physical space as you can, not least because it sends a message to everyone else that you are serious about this and that in that designated space you are to be left in peace.

Writing courses

Again, the field has never been in fuller bloom, with free online courses jostling with MA university courses and many others. A selection of day courses from time to time might work well for you or a weekly evening class. Try everything you can afford – I have never done a writing course without coming home with at least one useful nugget though of course some are better value than others.

Writing is rewriting

The fundamental truth about writing to a professional standard is that it is all about rewriting. Huge, tedious amounts of it. We all do it, we have to.

IMG_2317

Even Dickens kept a pretty sizeable bin handy.

The trick is to enjoy it. Why do our precious first drafts need more attention? The main reason is that we carry a perfect version of our story in our heads and a first draft is bound to be still some distance from it, though we take time to able to see that.

Rejections

Whenever a famous writer mentions all the rejections that came their way before they became successful, they encourage you to keep sending your work out, not to lose hope. They often forget to add that there may well be no sense in sending out a rejected text as it stands.

Rewrite, buff it up, go through it with a fine-tooth comb to see where it can be cut, tautened, deepened, generally improved. When I sent out the first draft of my first novel, I believed it was the very best I could manage – otherwise I wouldn’t have submitted it – but an agent was quick to point out that, although she liked the characters and scenario, the draft needed ‘a lot of work’.  Her response put me in the dizzying circle of Hades reserved for rejected writers, but she was right. My draft was also far too long.

I saw those four dreaded words – ‘a lot of work’ – as rejection and it stopped my writing for months. Eventually, I learned that it was a compliment. Sometimes agents and publishers will say, ‘Not this time but keep writing!’ Or, ‘Not this time but send us your next one’. Treasure these words in your heart: they mean it.

Musicians work for hours every day to be good enough to perform in public and we writers are just the same. Our writing exercises are the equivalent of musical scales and arpeggios. In rewriting we practise over and over to find what works and what works better, so that the best options come to us more quickly. We work at some parts of our story again and again from different angles to see how differing light shines on them. We write much more than readers ever see. We read other writers and listen to them as much as we can. Above all, we refuse to be easily satisfied because our readers deserve our best.

HOW DO WE REWRITE A FIRST DRAFT?

There is a universal pattern with us writers. When we have just finished something, we are thrilled with our work. We’re convinced it is a flawless work of genius and will stun the world. A few days later our hearts drop and, as we look at it again, we see nothing but rubbish. How could we ever have thought it (or we) had any merit at all?

Never at this second stage throw anything away. You are not the best judge at that time. Later we can look again with enough composure to see that some of it doesn’t quite work but other parts really do. You might even feel an inner buzz at that point as you start to edit, knowing that you can lift your game.

Leave it to cool

So, whenever you have just finished something big, take a rest from it for a few weeks. If you wake in the night thinking of improvements, jot them down and store them away for later. If you can’t resist the urge to tinker, start your cooling period over again. When those drifting afterthoughts have truly dried up and you’re enjoying other things, it’s time for you to open your draft again.

THE BIG READ

Are you ready for an exercise? A really big one, much more than five or ten minutes?

Set aside a whole day or maybe two when you will not be disturbed. Turn off all the buzzing things and wi-fi and warn people that you’re busy. You’ll be available later but not during this precious time. I do this on a sofa with biscuits handy because sometimes it can feel like self-surgery. But it must be done.

Think yourself into the mind of a stranger who knows nothing about your novel. If you dare, try to think yourself into the mind of a really cynical editor or agent who has seen it all. Then take a deep breath and read your draft straight through in as close to one sitting as you can.

In a bright, happy colour, mark your good bits, the bits that really sing. You might even remember the excitement of writing them. Congratulate yourself on that writing.

Do some bits now feel underwritten and need more? Are there other patches that sag, feel too long? Repetitions? Inconsistencies of plot? In another colour, write yourself notes and instructions in the margins – but don’t stop, keep reading.

Above all, put big red lines through anything dull. If you don’t, somebody else will.

Try at all costs to keep going until you’ve read the whole draft right through. If you need to visit the loo or have something to eat, mark where you were able to do that. It’s always worth noticing where anyone puts your story down.

Do you see now why your cooling period was needed? The objectivity you need is impossible while you’re still rolled up in the excitement of fresh writing.

Always save your first draft – you might regret some of those deletions – but that’s all it is now, a first draft. You’re making it your second and it will be miles better.

You’ve finished your read-through? You have a healthy crop of instructions to yourself for further action, and a lovely lot of ticks and positive notes too? Great! You’ve worked really hard so put it all safely away, pat yourself on the back and go for a walk, smiling. You have completed another big climb.

Dialogue – how to keep it real

What does dialogue do for your novel or story?

  • It brings your reader right into the action in what feels like real time. It’s the powerful essence of ‘Show, not Tell’.
  • It’s a direct route into character. The moment we begin to speak, we reveal who we are, where we come from, our age, viewpoint and a thousand other things.
  • Readers love to work out for themselves if they trust characters or not – are they truthful? – and how deeply characters know themselves.
  • You (as writer) can show how different your characters are in different contexts. The people we are at work are not the same as who we are with mum or an old friend. IMG_2214The play La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler (David Hare’s stage version is The Blue Room) exposes how the way we all behave and speak depends on the company we are in: a Duke’s behaviour in bed with a servant girl is not the same as when he is with his wife, for example.
  • Which means that dialogue is a quick route into showing your characters being as inconsistent as we all are. This is not the same as lying, it’s just that we are all multitudes inside. If stakes are rising and we are tested beyond our usual limits, our presentable mask slips. This is where you can bring out your character’s vulnerabilities and hook your readers emotionally more than ever.
  • Dialogue makes your page more attractive to read. One of the first things we learn in journalism school is that the more ‘white space’ there is around your words, the more likely people (any people) are to stay and read it. Good dialogue has plenty of white space.
  • Better than anything else, dialogue can raise questions as well as answer them. You can use it to expose longings and ambitions, hint at secrets.
  • You can switch from comedy to tragedy relatively easily, as we do in real life.
  • Dialogue breaks up passages of description, varies the texture.

How close is written dialogue to real conversation?

In some writing classes, you’ll be asked to eavesdrop on chatting strangers and record what you hear. That’s a time-consuming way of discovering that we all repeat ourselves a lot, have verbal habits like ‘You know’ or ‘Yeh yeh’, say the same thing several times in other ways, interrupt each other and do not always reply to what the other says as if it’s a game of ping pong. Eavesdropping is fun, and all writers do it. Be careful though: if strangers find out what you’re up to, they might not be best pleased.

The biggest lesson you will learn from your recording exercise is that dialogue needs editing. A lot of editing.

If you’re on a roll with a first draft, don’t let thoughts of editing get too much in your way. The only rule of first drafts is to keep writing and at all costs finish, so best of luck. We’ll leave you to it.

If you are ready to take things further, let’s look at how we make dialogue on the page feel real while doing the work we want it to do in terms of character and plot.

DIALOGUE & CHARACTER

What is revealed in the way we speak?

  • Age, personality, birth place and origin, economic status, education, world view.
  • Character traits you have been working on, such as the most important wound in your characters’ lives or what they passionately want and need above all else.
  • Relationships in our lives come through how we speak. Whether people are happy at home or have established religious faith is usually obvious from their conversation.
  • Fears, ambitions and dreams creep in too.
  • Any verbal tics you have given them (like Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’).

Each character also arrives in every scene with:

  • Context (has she slept badly, has he just been sacked, have they got money worries etc)
  • Mood (happy/sad/angry/fed up etc).
  • Agenda: what is each character looking for? We are all always looking for something from every encounter we have with others, whether we are aware of it or not. If a journalist is trying to persuade someone to be interviewed or to divulge a secret, that’s an obvious agenda. It can be more subtle: when you come home at the end of a day’s work and call ‘Hallo’, is there anything you want from that moment? Dramatic conflict (the essence of all stories) comes from the clash between our agendas and what actually happens. Don’t be too easy on your characters and give them what they want too soon.

EXERCISE 1

Imagine you’re in a park and see two people with a baby buggy. You move so close, you can hear what they say …

For five minutes, write their dialogue, showing as much about each character and their relationship as you can. Don’t bother with too many attributions (he said, she said, he muttered, she explained) – let rip and enjoy it.

EXERCISE 2

Psychologists have discovered that in ordinary conversation, we rarely say more than 7 to 10 words at a time. In plays and soap operas, it can be even less.

Re-write the first exercise, keeping each line to 7 words or less. Be strict with yourself about the word count.

Once your scene is flowing, try letting the reader know that there’s something that one is hiding from the other.

EXERCISE 3

People move, think and feel while they speak too. Rewrite Exercise 2 with brief actions, thoughts and feelings between the lines of dialogue. Now you have prose fiction as opposed to a radio script!

Two main problems crop up when we write dialogue in first drafts.

First is writing a radio script by accident. You’re deep at your page or screen with the action around you, rolling nicely to the page. Your characters are so present with you that you’re soaked in what they’re saying and their words to take over. This is exciting and marvellous and is one of the great ways to produce a first draft. But if you look back later and find that for page after page, you have almost nothing but dialogue – it’s time to edit.

The second is allowing your characters to fall into lengthy speeches.

There are times when one person in a conversation gets to hold forth, when one is a teacher or in some other position of authority, for example, or one has a problem to unfold. But most conversation is an exchange of short lines.

The good news is that the short stuff engages readers more easily, feels more real and, in the right scene, can raise the stakes for you all by itself by bringing up the pace.

EXERCISE 4

  • Invent a scene or choose one from your work in progress.
  • Sketch out the mood, context, agenda for each character before you start.
  • Write your scene giving your characters no more than 7 words each for at least 100 words.
  • Put a single line of action (she twisted her wedding ring, he held his breath) or thought or feeling between each line.
  • Be amazed at how much has been revealed in those few words, and how actively it all reads.
  • Notice what your characters have not said, and the power of that. Renoir, 1879 IMG_2210
  • Keep writing, and when the scene needs it, allow a longer speech to one of your characters.

See how the change of pace makes the whole scene work better for you? The seven-word exercise can feel really hard and unreasonable but it’s one of the most valuable fiction-writing skills there is. If you do it often, it will soon feel natural and your dialogue will improve no end.

Happy writing!