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!

#getpublished – 7 things agents and publishers take for granted

Before you send out your draft, let’s take a moment to step inside the minds of professional agents and publishers. Imagine them on their Monday morning commute hoping that today maybe … maybe … they’ll find the Next Big Thing in the book world.

They know what they’re looking for and in a way they don’t. So, let’s look first at what they take for granted:

  1. Spelling, grammar and syntax

Agents and publishers have usually spent most of their years in the company of wonderful writing and have often studied English literature in one form or another. They tend to see competence with spelling, grammar and syntax as the first skill of anyone who wants to be published.

You can feel cross-eyed by the time you’ve checked your submission a dozen times, but another time might make all the difference. Spellcheck has its pits and traps, and sometimes a shady sense of humour.

Grammar and syntax are about the subtle business of putting your words in the right order and making sure, for example, that your sentences have a verb and subject that match. It’s our job to play with all this and make the language dance but we need to judge when and how much we can bend the rules, and above all we should be clear.

There are plenty of resources to help you, including a wonderful section in Stephen King’s On Writing. This is our Highway Code and to get anywhere on the publishing industry’s map, we need to know our stuff.

Haven’t there been classic writers who couldn’t spell their own names? Stand up, Mr Shakespeare? Who twisted the language like a rambling rose, especially in the voice of a first person narrator? Stand up for applause, Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Of-course there have but if you are a so-far unknown writer trying to break in, it’s wise to make it easy for yourself. Agents and publishers used to take time to correct and upgrade a writer’s text but they can’t afford it these days and since the proliferation of university courses, they are used to work that’s polished and honed.

If you write well but need help with these basics, please find a way to get it before your work goes out. Pay if you have to: it’ll pay off.

  1. Formatting and layout

In short, obey all submission guidelines first, last and always. You can find these on a publisher’s or agent’s website. There will be more about this in tomorrow’s post.

  1. Articulacy

You have the power of conveying things well in words. A clear, simple, uncluttered style will be your friend. This is why professional journalists often transfer successfully to fiction; they are trained in cutting superfluous words like adjectives and adverbs and getting quickly to the point.

  1. A positive, life-enhancing vibe

I’m being controversial here. Aren’t writers entitled to write whatever they want? Isn’t negativity as much part of life as positivity? True, but I beg you to pity the poor agent or sifter who trudges through the unsolicited pile. Even if you’re describing life’s direst circle of hell, please manage to give a sense in your submission that, one way or another, your characters will learn that life is worth living. Not only is this kind to agents and publishers, optimism sells better. For those of you who disagree, stay true to your inner light. Here is my favourite cartoon – behind me as I type:

Golding cartoon

  1. Storytelling skills

Agents and publishers have hawk-like focus for who has good storytelling skills when they’re scanning a submission. They can tell within a paragraph or two.

Low patches in your writing energy can be an opportunity to freshen up your skills and get a new perspective on how your story might work best. Writing exercises and morning pages or journal are like scales and arpeggios for musicians – they keep you limber. Keep reading and learning, seeking out advice and help in as many places as you can. Keep editing and rewriting, cranking up the quality of your script.

And, as Elmore Leonard said, don’t bother to write the bits readers skip.

  1. Talent

What’s ‘talent’ doing here? How can agents and publishers take talent for granted? Because if they get distracted from your script and forget to pick it up again, another dozen or more talented submissions are waiting for them that day. Because if talent is there without all these other elements, it won’t be able to shine.

  1. The secret ingredient

Agents and publishers make most of their money from their existing clients and backlists of deceased classic writers. It’s amazing in tough times that they bother with unknown writers at all and many are choosy about when they open a submissions window. They know however that new writers are the life blood of the industry.

So, when they pick up a new, unsolicited typescript, what are they looking for?

  • A strong, unusual voice in
  • a cracking story
  • of high importance featuring
  • great, memorable characters and
  • drama (plausible high stakes, conflict, plenty of dilemmas). And
  • if possible, a powerful, enduring truth told in a new, exciting way.

These are what make agents and publishers lean forward, exhale with relief and turn more of your pages. They are what every post in this blog has been about and I put it here free to do what I can to help great new writers who don’t have the money or opportunity for a creative writing university degree.

I’ll leave you with Stephen King’s lessons on how to be a great writer. Turning off the television and picking up a book instead is in there, yes 🙂

More tomorrow. 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.

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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.

 

THREE GREAT TRICKS FOR REVISING YOUR DRAFT

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

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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.

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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.

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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“.

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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.

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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!

 

 

How to lay out your dialogue

The three biggest tools in a writer’s box of crafts are through-line, point of view, and training ourselves to show our story in action rather than telling it at a remove. One of the easiest ways to bring your reader up close to your story is to show your characters talking to each other. Readers feel as if they are right there in the conversation themselves.

IMG_2200

Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876

So, how do we write dialogue, edit it, present it, use it best? Let’s start at the beginning, with how we lay it out.

EXERCISE

Choose a couple of characters; they can be your own, from somebody else’s novel or just make them up for today, it doesn’t matter. Call them by the initials of their first names (such as A and B) and scribble lightly, fast an exchange they might have on a Sunday morning.

Don’t sweat too much about what they’re saying, though if you’re on a roll and produce something useful for your draft, that’s great. What we’re concerned with today is how we lay those words out.

Each publisher has its own house style and will expect you to have had a close look at theirs before you submit your draft to them. This will, I’m afraid, take time and care. Consistency and an eye for detail are everything.

Practices differ around the world but the same questions arise everywhere. Let’s start with the most usual UK practice (only because it’s where I live) and notice the sort of wrinkles and subtleties that come up.

Dialogue layout

In the UK, our characters’ spoken words are usually surrounded by single inverted commas or quotations marks:

‘How do I lay this table?’ he asked.

Elsewhere in the world it can be double quotation marks, or none at all, just a dash to lead in the spoken words.

If your character is quoting something within a spoken sentence, we in the UK use double quotes for that:

‘You’re useless. Your mother said the self-same thing on the phone yesterday. “He’s useless,” she said. Those were her very words.’

All punctuation belonging to the spoken words comes inside the quotation marks, nice and cosy.

‘When’s she coming? Did you say – I heard you say, didn’t I?  – she’s coming at two?’

And try not to forget the closing quotation mark, it’s easily done.

If there’s an attribution like ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ after the spoken words, then a comma comes after the spoken words, inside the final inverted comma, and ‘he said’ comes in lower case as part of the same sentence:

‘I really wish we could just run away, now,’ he said.

Even if what he said was a full sentence, as above.

If you’ve got an attribution other than ‘he/she said’, it’s the same:

‘Well, I never invited her!’ she shouted.

If the attribution (‘he/she said’) starts with someone’s name, then the capital letter is used, as usual.

‘I know, darling. Calm down,’ Paul said.

And when the character keeps speaking after that attribution, you can keep going with a capital or lower case letter, depending on whether the speech is a new sentence or not:

‘You used to love me,’ Alison cried. ‘At least I thought so, until now …’

 

As above, if there is a new sentence to come, then the attribution ends with a full stop. We know that the new piece of speech (beginning ‘At least I thought so …) is Alison’s because it’s on the same line as her previous words.

(If Alison had run this into a single sentence, it would look like this:

‘You used to love me,’ Alison cried, ‘or I thought so, until now …’)

Paul took her hand in his and said, ‘Why do you doubt me, darling, when I’ve given you all this?’ Which could equally be written:

Paul took her hand in his and said:

‘Why do you doubt me, darling’ etc.

Again, if Alison continues her sentence after her attribution, the first comma is inside the quotation marks and her new speech starts lower case, as it would if the attribution wasn’t there.

‘You make me sick,’ she sobbed, drawing her hand away, ‘especially when you think you can get around me like this.’

If the attribution comes before the spoken words, then it ends with a comma and the spoken sentence starts with the capital it would have if it were standing on its own:

Paul shouted, ‘My mother’s due any minute and I don’t want to see her any more than you do but we’ve got no choice. Now clean yourself up and get into that kitchen!’

‘Don’t you yell at me like that!’

Yes, quite often you don’t have to tell the reader who is speaking. In fact, if your character’s voice is right, the reader will know just from verbal inflections, accent and personality who is saying what. You can also indicate who is speaking by putting a character’s actions in the same line:

‘I’m not yelling at you.’ Paul pulled his sweater down and looked out of the window. He saw two pigeons fussing together on the lower branches of his monkey puzzle tree. A stab of envy of their simple joy ate into his heart. ‘I would never yell at you, my sweet, I’ve loved you all my life.’

If you have a brief bit of description interrupting someone’s spoken words, you can put it inside dashes outside the quotation marks like this:

‘You haven’t known me all your life’ – a car horn blared outside on the gravel – ‘and you know precious little about me now. I do have a choice actually, and I’m making it. I’m off!’

Indents, or a new paragraph, make it clear that there’s a change of speaker:

‘Please don’t go, darling, not now.’

‘Not when I’m supposed to be cooking, you mean?’

‘I mean not when we’ve been happy for so long!’

‘You call this happy?’

‘But how could I cope without you?’

Whether you use indents or paragraphs for speech is a matter of house style and your publisher will tell you what they want.

If someone is indulging in a monologue that goes on for more than one paragraph, each subsequent paragraph of the speech opens with an inverted comma although the previous one remains open. This is where it can be especially easy to forget to close your final speech marks and the reader thinks that your next piece of description is being said:

Paul ignored a prolonged honk from the car on the gravel outside and took a bottle from the fridge. He filled two glasses with ice and covered the cubes with dark rum. ‘Well, my darling, I’ll miss you.’ He handed one glass to Alison. ‘I remember the first time I caught sight of you, during lectures in the first year, with your hair in plaits and those yellow cycle clips over your brown jeans, and I thought, that’s the prettiest girl I’ll ever see in my life.

 ‘I was right too. I’ve never wanted anybody else, Alison. Never even fancied anyone else. But if you want to go, I can’t stop you. I’ll always have Mother … and rum.’

He lifted his glass in salute as Alison downed hers and slammed the door behind her without another word.  

Have a look at a wide selection of the books around you, comparing the different ways publishers do it. As always, have fun, and remember the times when conversation can be silent.

IMG_2199

Klimt’s The Kiss, 1907/8

Happy writing. More about dialogue next week!

Through-line – the single most vital trick in writing a novel

And by vital I mean life-giving as well as essential. Your through-line is the great big question you ask at the beginning of your story, the one that keeps your reader hooked through every page.

WHAT IS YOUR BOOK ABOUT?

You could answer ‘about 30,000 words so far’. Many people say their book is about one of the big abstract issues like war, heroism, exile, true love or that mixed blessing we call family. Those are themes. Most good books have at least one theme though they’re not essential. Themes are what you want your readers to think about, after they’ve closed your book and are going on with their lives.

Through-line

Your through-line is the big plot question you ask at the beginning of your story, the one that keeps your reader hooked until it’s answered, one way or another, close to the last page. It is not about the meaning of heroism in general, it is about the heroic survival of a particular character your readers care about. Through-lines are about what you want your readers to feel.

Your theme is:

  • an abstract question
  • appealing to the intellect,
  • affecting as many of your characters as you like,
  • that you need not answer – let readers make up their own minds,
  • is not necessarily something that will be attainable or resolved by the story’s end and
  • more than one theme is fine though, if you have more, they should link in some way.

Your through-line is:

  • a specific question about a particular need. Will Jill get a pony? Will Carrie marry Big? Will Sherlock find the killer? Will Black Beauty survive?
  • It’s an emotional question of high stakes
  • about a particular person, preferably your main character(s). A thousand pages of statistics teach us about rough-sleeping but in Stuart: A Life Backwards; it’s Stuart’s own life story that gives it emotional urgency.
  • Your through-line question should be humanly attainable (achieving world peace goes in the ‘theme’ section) and
  • it must be attained or answered in the story. The answer doesn’t have to be yes but there should be a sense of resolution at the end.

An example of a through-line

A fine example of a powerful through-line is in Stuart: A Life Backwards. This excellent book came about when its author Alexander Masters worked in a facility for homeless people in Cambridge and met a rough sleeper called Stuart. They became friends and decided to write Stuart’s life story. Alexander’s first draft was painstaking but, by his own admission, dull. Stuart didn’t like it either and came up with a stunning through-line and structure.

Write it backwards, Stuart said, starting in the present and going back in time to his childhood. Write it like a Tom Clancy thriller, he suggested too, and next is where his marvellous through-line comes in. Readers should ask, he said, who stole Stuart’s innocence. Who ‘killed’ the boy he was.

Who stole Stuart’s innocence? Who stole his life, in other words, and when the answer comes, everything hilariously aggravating about Stuart (and there’s plenty) is instantly understood and the reader’s heart is broken. Stuart died between the finishing of the book and its publication: he didn’t survive to see Alexander awarded the Guardian First Book prize for their work.

Who stole Stuart’s innocence? Will Joey the Warhorse survive the Western Front and come home to the boy who trained him? Will Anna Karenina live happily ever after? Will the community of Watership Down rabbits ever manage to settle safely again? Will the boys in Lord of the Flies ever be rescued?

Golding cartoon

EXERCISE – 10 MINUTES

Choose one of your favourite stories? Give yourself ten minutes to define and write about its through-line. This is not always as easy as it sounds. In the film Titanic, for example, we know that Rose survives for decades after the wreck. The film’s through-line is how she survives.

Your favourite story will have sub-plots – do they have through-lines too? Are they different from the main one? Are they linked to it and to each other? Do the characters have their own personal through-lines? How do they all connect?

EXERCISE – 10 MINUTES

Let’s think now about the story you are writing. Please don’t be discouraged if this exercise turns out to be tricky. At first draft stage, it’s not at all unusual to have through-lines that spread like deltas – in fact, that’s often why people lose heart and give up. Thinking about your through-line at any stage can help keep you on track.

See if you can sum up your through-line in 20 to 30 words. It may well feel impossible but keep trying. You might find yourself coming up with three or four through-lines. Don’t worry, your story is work in progress.

Exciting as your several through-lines might be, it’s important to keep scribbling around them until one edges forward as the most urgent. Some classic novels have more than one but if you’re working on your first novel, try to keep things simple and clear. The clearer your through-line, the stronger and more saleable your story will be.

Your through-line is precious. It’s your story’s backbone, its engine, the thread that holds your story’s beads together, and it should appear somehow in every chapter. Occasionally readers will forgive a little tangent but keep it brief. (By Book 4 of A Game of Thrones, George RR Martin had so many of us readers by the heart that we kept reading as if it was an endurance test, but our favourite characters and their through-lines were missing from that fourth book and, to be honest, he lost a lot of us.)

Once you’re confident of your through-line, congratulate yourself. You now have what is known as your ‘elevator pitch’ for those precious ten seconds when somebody introduces you to an agent or publisher and you’re asked what your novel in progress is about.

Crucially for your story, once you know your through-line, you are equipped to destabilise it in every stage of your story, nudging up your stakes as you go, until you reach your destination. As Wilkie Collins said, make them laugh, make them cry and, above all, make them wait.

A QUICK WORD ABOUT STAKES

What lowers your stakes? Anything that makes a reader put down the book and forget to pick it up again. This list comes from my writing groups – please feel free to add your own:

  • Repetition,
  • Diverting the story into something else (away from your through-line),
  • Too much leaden description,
  • Telling us what we know already or can guess,
  • Spelling out every damn thing,
  • Being predictable, and too unpredictable,
  • Unsympathetic or boring characters,
  • Showing off research and
  • Mistakes.

FINAL EXERCISE – 10 – 15 minutes to start with

For practice, let’s imagine a static scene where one of your characters is sitting in a traffic jam, pauses lost in thought while they’re up to their wrists in washing up water or takes time out to look at the sky. 

whit evening

First, let’s discover how your character (X) is feeling at the beginning of the scene. Start with a brief scribble-chat together:

  • What can X see, hear, taste, smell and touch?
  • Is X hot or cold, comfortable or not, in tight clothing or loose, in a familiar place or a strange one?
  • What is X’s mood: stressed or calm, low or excited, fearful etc.?
  • How does X feel about what’s just been happening ? For example, has X just left an exam or job interview early and is worried about the outcome?

You should have X’s voice flowing nicely in your imagination now as s/he leads you through her/his senses, surroundings, mood and context.

Now, find a way to bring X’s thoughts around to your through-line, if you haven’t already. As you keep writing, see if you can let your character raise your novel’s stakes to greater urgency with a lightning jolt.

Even a static scene can be full of activity. In fact, the contrast in pace can work to your advantage and produce an unforgettable chapter. As long as you bring your stakes and character together with your through-line, all will be well.

Happy writing!