Category: Words, writers and writing


Two ways to novel success

As anyone who has ever tried well knows, the first rule for writing a successful novel is that there are no rules.

Or, if you like, there are dozens of rules and innumerable variations upon them.

In recent days there has been further proof of this in newspaper interview revelations about their writing days with two highly successful authors.

Susan Hill (best known for The Woman in Black) says

E-book trash, not publishers, keeps authors poor

Once again we poor slaves of the written word are being categorised as an endangered species, especially those of us who devote our energies to long-form fiction and non-fiction.

The Society of Authors is blaming the subsistence level of writers’ earnings on publishers who fail to pay adequate recompense for works that end up as e-books.

It has called on publishers to shell out at least 50 per cent of their revenue from e-book sales instead of the “mere” 25 per cent that is currently paid – if you are lucky.

It’s a fair call and one that might help raise the income of British authors above the present annual median of £11,000.

However, with the enormous proliferation of self-published works, it could be that authors are their own worst enemies. Too many are chasing numbers – in terms of downloads – rather than income. Hardly have they uploaded their book to Amazon, Kindle, Smashwords or wherever than they are offering deals akin to some cheapjack stallholder down Petticoat Lane.

They equate success with downloads rather than with the number of readers willing to pay to read their work.

Writers’ websites are awash with screams of FREE or 99 CENTS, such is the minimal value they place on their creative work.

While the Society of Authors claims low publisher payments are reducing “the breadth and quality of content … that drives the cultural reputation of our creative industries”, it is actually the writers themselves who are doing this. The advent of easy online publishing has opened the floodgates to every Jack and Jill who picks up a genuine best-seller and says “I can do that” and dashes off another 100,00 words of trash to add to the already enormous shitpile that self-publishing has become.

They clearly can’t “do that” but no one is there to stop them or, at least, edit them, as the traditional publishers once did.

By all means reward authors adequately for their work – but first let’s ensure that work has merit some levels above trash that is too quickly becoming the norm.

Reaching for a plot with Lee Child

My fellow writers have long intrigued me with the methods they use for creating the plot-lines of their novels.

It is especially fascinating because my own means of devising a plot is probably best described as “let it happen” and I’ll follow along behind.

My characters lead me; I don’t lead them or even tell them what they should be doing next.

This is of course in total contrast to so much of what is contained in the plethora of How To books and guides. There is probably even a Dummies’ Guide to Plotting – although any such tome might well be intended for budding Machiavellis rather than latent novelists.

Writing courses at our colleges and institutes also place heavy stress on the importance of plotting.

It was therefore fascinating to read a review of Reacher Said Nothing (Bantam Press) in which Andy Martin recounts his time spent observating master thriller writer Lee Child as he wrote his latest book, Make Me, his twentieth featuring his hero sleuth Jack Reacher.

The most telling moment is when, after five and a half months of writing and with 44,695 words behind him, Lee Child said he had only then begun “to work out what the hell was going on”.

How well I know that feeling; and how satisfying it is to hear it from such a master of the craft and to know I’m not alone. Throughout three crime novels and with a fourth close to completion my “method” has been to follow my characters wherever they may lead.

When they get a surprise, so do I. There is no plotting to have them open a door and discover a body within. Their surprise is my surprise  for there has been no pre-planning on my part.

I am in awe of fellow writers who have whiteboards crammed with names, places, pictures, maps even – all linked by a maze of lines that look more complex than a map of the London Underground.

And there are others who are forever scribbling plot-lines into notebooks or littering their offices with Post-It notes to remind themselves where next to take their hero/ine or dispose of another body.

Maybe it’s the wrong way to go about things but at least writing becomes a succession of regular surprises rather than a coolly calculated process written to a preconceived formula.

If it’s good enough for Lee (and Jack) then it’s good enough for me (and Bromo).

 

Rubbernecker recommended

Well, that was some book. And for once it lived up to all the hype and praise highlighted on its covers and frontispiece.

Having earlier devoured the superb The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (and now looking forward to the much-praised stage version in a few months time), I have been even more captivated, intrigued and thoroughly absorbed by Rubbernecker (Black Swan Books) by Belinda Bauer.

Little wonder that it won her the Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award for 2014. It’s a stunner.

Like The Curious Incident, its main protagonist is a young person with autism or Asperger’s (no one is quite sure which) who weaves his way almost nonchalantly through a minefield of pitfalls, setbacks, disasters, assaults and insults as he doggedly unravels a mystery that all around him either refuse to acknowledge exists, or are attempting to hide.

All he wants to know is the truth. Seemingly such a simple quest for one with what might be termed a “simple” mind. But, as we all know, the world is full of liars, ditherers, spin doctors, prevaricators, distorters and cover-up merchants to whom the truth is something to be twisted and denied.

Bauer provides a master-class in piling mystery upon mystery as her anti hero, the perpetually bemused Patrick, doggedly seeks the answers to his father’s death and that of a man whose body he has to dissect as he studies the intricacies of anatomy. She gathers numerous threads, each seemingly loose and disconnected, and gradually weaves them into a neat and highly credible solution. But the route she takes is tortuous and tantalising.

It is a stunner of a book that steps well beyond the usual borders of the mystery/detection genre yet remains a thriller, astonishing in its plotting and beautifully crafted in its writing.

Bauer has already won the CWA Golden Dagger award for Crime Novel of the Year with her first book, Blacklands, and Rubbernecker suggests there are many more accolades to come. Can’t get enough of her.

 

Horse before cart

Today I have been handed a 107,000-word manuscript for assessment … and it provides an object lesson for so many would-be writers.

It comes to me as a PDF. Why? At this early stage, a simple text document is all that is required. Why go to the trouble of creating a format that is impractical and unworkable for the next stage – editing?

A quick bit of Googling revealed the author had already gone to the trouble (and expense) of obtaining an ISBN. Again, why? It is something else that comes much later – if the manuscript is assessed as worthy of publication.

Google also provided a listing for the “book”, giving every indication that it was published and available, although its creator claimed this was not so despite it having been registered in all the official sources.

Once past all these obstructive preliminaries it soon became clear that this was a work very much in progress, rough and incomplete . The usual wandering apostrophes were everywhere, paragraphing was non-existent, style was inconsistent to the extent that there was no style. As a document purporting to throw new light on a well-known historical event, it ignored the timeline helpfully provided at the start. It rambled and lacked structure.

An assessment could therefore be provided in a few words without going into all the usual specifics. It would state  rewrite, revise, proofread and re-submit.

The simple lesson provided by this request for assessment is to get the priorities right. Those are to complete your manuscript, revise your manuscript, have your manuscript thoroughly proofread and then, and only then, submit it for assessment/consideration/editing.

Once all that has been done, then is the time to think of ISBNs, PDFs, national library registration and uploading details to the web. Remember, it is the horse that always comes first; not the cart.

 

 

Well said, Russell

In the last three days I have re-written the same chapter three times. Each time I’ve cut and added characters, I’ve changed the sequence of events, I’ve added, eliminated and altered the backstory, I’ve had new ideas, discarded old ones and drank x cups of coffee. And each time it’s been a little bit better, a little bit tighter, and a tiny step closer to what I actually want to happen. And I look forward to doing the same tomorrow. It’s called writing.

These are not my words, but those of fellow scribe Russell Proctor on the Facebook page of Australian Writers Rock. They seemed to sum up the whole writing bizzo so blindingly well. They encapsulate the whys and wherefores more succinctly, and just as precisely, as anything uttered by most of the poseurs and presenters we have reverently listened to at festivals, symposiums and workshops.

Sometimes there is just too much agonising, analysing and proselyting. As Nike urges the more active among us: Just Do It!

A storm of a zephyr

Ah, the irony of it all. The past few days have seen a deluge of posts on a Facebook group’s site populated by Australian authors.  The focus of their attention has been a single word: zephyr. A writer who had penned the line a zephyr of wind caressed the land was asking if there could be a zephyr of anything but wind.

The response was enormous. Much of it was repetitive (why do FB posters feel compelled to say what has already been said?) The rest varied from the wryly humorous (“I thought a zephyr was a car”) to the sadly revelatory from those claiming to be writers (“I’ve never heard the word”).  In between were some direct answers to the question posed, plus a variety of suggestions on rephrasing and even re-voicing.

Most interesting of all were the posts that variously suggested the word is archaic, strange, unknown or has no place in modern usage because, as one person  stated, it is not used by the majority of people in normal conversation. All of which suggests we should revert to a Dr Seuss level of writing with the cat in the hat sat on the mat and never indulge in multisyllabic words or anything that needs looking up in a dictionary.

Let’s not use big words; they are too confusing for our increasingly under-educated fellow beings. And let’s not resurrect words from the noble lineage of the English language, where meanings ebb and flow down the  centuries. Why enrich and add variety to our prose when we can reduce it to the lowest level?  I know not of a zephyr, hence I will not use it – or even take the trouble to improve my knowledge by seeking its definition.

The irony I referred to is that this week also saw the online resource OxfordDictionaries.com  announce its latest additions, which includes such neologisms (go on, look it up) as humblebragging, neckbeards, binge-watch and clickbait, listicle and side boob, all of which I have so far had no occasion to use. However, if needed and appropriate, they could well eventually make an appearance. I will not demur simply because they may not be known to some readers.

Oxford Dictionaries adds more than 1000 new words each year, which is proof enough that our language neither stands still nor remains rooted in past definitions.

A zephyr of change constantly caresses our language. Totally amazeballs, in fact.

 

 

 

Words … but what do they mean?

The following extract is from a manuscript I was recently asked to assess for publication:

‘All right, I’ll see to changing that, might take a while.’ Eleanor continued with her agenda. ‘Now, what about Security? Personnel? Industrial Relations? Safety?’
‘Hey, we need those.’ Arthur made a note. ‘Security and Safety have been the contractor’s problem up till now, I’ve been handling I-R recently, and we’ve done our own recruiting, but I remember, what was suggested was that we should use Site Services for Personnel and I-R, . . . oh, yes, we have had to refer to them a while ago for minor problems, but I’d rather continue independently if possible . . . can you fix that, too?’
‘If you want it that way. Gerry won’t like it, but hell, you’re supposed to be separate. Stay that way, but leave it open so you can use his people if you need to.’
‘Thanks for that. I guess we can use them for Safety, that’s just a matter of processing forms. Well, we hope. But Security . . . ‘ he paused.
‘Do it yourself,’ Eleanor advised. ‘Hire one man per shift, from an external service company, on the gate. The company can report to the Office Manager, that’s you, isn’t it, Joy? Now, what about the one item you seem to have forgotten.’ She waited a moment for dramatic effect. ‘Where does Quality Control fit? Under Production?’

So many words, so many commas and trailing points. But what does it all mean? And would you want to read 270 pages of such writing? It is sad to see so much effort being expended to such little effect. So few would-be authors understand that writing consists of much more than an outpouring of words. It is a craft that has to be studied and learned.

Rebus returns

Thanks goodness the Scots have decided to raise the retirement age for their police force. It means Ian Rankin can bring irascible old Rebus back to the mean streets of Edinburgh. Standing in Another Man’s Grave is already completed and due for release in November. It not only resurrects Rebus 25 years after he first appeared, but it also sees him up against the adversary of his later years, the dour and dutiful Malcolm Fox. Orion is the publisher.

One-stop editing

Love the story from publisher/writer Anthony Horowitz who records the editor of his 205,000-word Oblivion suggesting he change the voice from third person to first person.
Her “simple” idea was that this could be achieved by using the find/replace dropdown in Word.
But, as Horowitz rightly comments, the reality was “it would mean totally rewriting the whole bloody thing.”
As a result he is no longer speaking to her or, more accurately, “Anthony is no longer speaking to Jane”.