Monday, 3 September 2012

Sometimes Flashback Is The Answer

I'm not a fan of flashback.  It too often means the story stops dead because flashback is essentially dealing with stuff that's already happened, so there's no suspense about what's to come.  New writers are particularly prone to either a) having a character staring at themselves in the mirror thinking about what happened the night before or b) having a character embarking on a long train journey and thinking back to the last time they went to Abersoch (or wherever).

But as I've recently used a spot of flashback in my current book, I thought it was only fair that I said how I'd used it and why.

The scenario:  The main character wants to do something, her partner didn't want her to do it, but she does it anyway.

It was important for the plot that the main character didn't really register her partner's wishes.  My choice was either: to write a short scene when they have a conversation discussing it or cover the relevant bit of the conversation in flashback.

The scene would normally be my preferred choice but I chose flashback because:

a) due to logistics, this conversation would have to be over the phone, and phone conversations are always a bit meh, and to be avoided.

b) there wasn't anything else really to do or say in the conversation, so it would have only had one purpose.  This is not good for a scene; a single purpose scene usually lacks depth and conviction.

c) it was important for the plot that the character didn't really register her partner's wishes.  In other words, she - my viewpoint character - wasn't paying attention.  I would have to write a scene where she was trying to do something else while having the conversation (eg check she'd got everything she needed in her bag before going out or check her makeup or try to put a pair of lace up shoes on while having a phone conversation).

The simplest solution was to have her remember the relevant bit of the conversation at a later date.  I chose the moment just before she was going to do the thing her partner really didn't want her to do which meant I could give her a moment of disquiet at the point when she was making the choice of whether to continue or not, while also making it clear that she hadn't taken on board his reservations at all.  And that she independently had her own misgivings - but then events over took her and she goes ahead (well, there wouldn't be any story if characters didn't do things they later regret).

So using a short burst of flashback (and I do mean short, just a few lines) solved the situation - and added value to the story as well (making it completely clear she hadn't taken on board his reservations).

Friday, 24 August 2012

How Much Does Good Grammar and Spelling Matter?

Writing is all about communication.  Grammar and spelling matter because they make communication easier.  When grammar and spelling are correct the reader reads exactly what you intended them to read. There are no ambiguities, no confusions.  The reader also reads without effort because they don't have to keep stopping to work out what the meaning might be and effortless reading makes reading a pleasure.

It could be argued that that's what editors are for, and it is - up to a point.  But publishing is being squeezed at the moment and there's less money to spend on editing.  If there is a choice between two manuscripts, one which will require lots of editing and one which won't, then they will choose the one that will be cheaper for them.

And you can't by-pass the issues of poor grammar and spelling by choosing to publish yourself. because readers can download sample chapters.  Would you choose to buy a book with lots of errors?  Even if the book was free, you'd be unlikely to want to spend your valuable time on it.

Good grammar and spelling matters, regardless of the quality of the story telling.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

My life at the moment is busy.  I've got deadlines to hit in my writing life, at home there's one house move done, another imminent. In short, my time is being squeezed.  It's been an interesting experience because it is teaching me to organise my priorities.  Chatting on social media is mainly out, as is reading other people's blogs.

Then there's this blog...well, you may have noticed it's been erratic over the past few weeks.  The thing is, I've made a personal commitment to it.  If I stop blogging 5 days a week I know I will go down to 3 times a week, then 2, then 1 then...the daily commitment is what keeps me going.  I may miss a day or two when under pressure, but essentially it's every day.

It's the same with writing.  If it isn't prioritised, if the commitment isn't made, then it's very easy to let a day, a week, a month - or even a year - go by without moving the writing forwards.  The answer is to put aside time on a regular basis - ten minutes every day, two hours every Saturday morning, every Thursday evening from 6-9pm, whatever suits you - and stick to that.

I used to walk my dog for an hour every day without fail.  Since he's gone, I don't know how I managed to find the time for that hour long walk, but I did (and was much healthier for it).  If it's part of your routine and if you commit to it, you will find the time for your writing.  So I'll keep on blogging - but hope you'll forgive me if it's sometimes later than usual.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

There is a joke in my family that should my sister offer to make you a cup of tea it is best to decline.  First of all she can't bear to wait for the kettle to boil and secondly she can not wait for the tea to draw so what you end up with is a mug of pale beige, lukewarm water.  Patience is not one of her many virtues.

Ten years ago, publishing would have been a horrible world for her to join because it involved so much waiting*.  Waiting for an agent to reply, waiting for feedback, waiting for a publisher to offer that elusive deal.  Then, should it happen, waiting for the book to go through the publishing process - it took nearly two years from the original offer for my first book to come out in print.

But now anyone can publish anything, whenever they want to.  Just download the files and in an hour or so your book is available for the whole world to read.

I don't have a problem with this as such.  But I do know that when I wrote my first book I was convinced it was brilliant and was distinctly miffed that the publishing world didn't agree with me.  'What do they know?' I stomped around saying as yet another rejection letter turned up.

Then, after a good six months of sulking, I knuckled down and re-wrote it.  In the end I changed 90% of the first "brilliant" draft and the second version was snapped up (with the publisher giving me sackfuls of money for the privilege) and went on to be published around the world.

There's nothing wrong with being impatient and going for it, bypassing the whole waiting process.  But just be aware that you may end up with lukewarm beige water.

*Actually, Annie is a published non-fiction author.  She's still impatient though.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Re-Writing Before There's Cash On The Table

Scenario:  You've written and re-written and polished your book.  You've got feedback.  You've re-written and re-polished.  You've sent the manuscript out.  An agent likes it but makes suggestions for rewriting the manuscript - do you do them? Alternatively, the agent has taken the manuscript on and sent it out, an editor at a publishing company is interested but wants changes to the manuscript - do you do them?

In other words, do you make changes BEFORE anyone commits to your work?  It's not unusual for people to do extensive re-writes and still get turned down.  

I think Yes  - if you really really understand the underlying reasons why they want the changes AND agree with them.  

For example, my Dutch editor said she wouldn't buy Nice Girls Do unless I made a story change.  She said that readers wouldn't believe that Anna would end up with Will because they hadn't already slept together.  She didn't care how I got them into bed together, only that sex had happened and that it was great.  I understood the reasoning, and agreed with her.  I made the changes - which meant whole chunks of new writing, not just tinkering - and liked the end result so much that that version is the one that was published around the world, not just in Holland.

So I understood the problem, agreed with it, and could see how I could change the ms to accommodate a solution which strengthened the novel.  The understanding is key.  

The problems occur when the agent or editor says something vague, like they want the character to be a little more positive.  You look at the ms, think your character is already pretty positive, but add a few more positive bits of dialogue.  In other words, you're showing willing with the idea of changing material but without really understanding what the underlying problem is.  Because you haven't understood, you can't deal with the problem - it'll be luck not skill if you get it right.  

If you don't understand, ask.  If you can't ask, then talk with writing friends - can they see what the agent or editor is getting at?  If you understand but disagree, again try to get a discussion going.  Put your side, listen to theirs.  It there a third way that will satisfy both of you?  I've re-written drafts and my editor has been surprised at the extent of the rewriting, but it's been the only way for both of us to be happy - and I assume the readership too, as the rewrites have always been better than the original.

Try to get a discussion going and keep at it until you can see the way forward that works for you because if you try to write without your heart being entirely behind what you're writing, you will fail. 

And then what? Which version is better?  I've seen people re-write extensively and still be turned down. Then they send out the revised ms, and get more suggestions that lead back to the first version. That gets turned down too. The author is left confused, demoralised and derailed. Now they have three versions, and they have no idea which is best. Or even which is closest to their original vision.

So the answer to the original question in my opinion is simple - Yes, if you understand, and No if you don't.  

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Incomplete Sentences. Are. Irritating.

I'm reading An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, which won the Orange Award for New Writers.  I'm enjoying it in a slightly abstracted way as I keep on getting pulled up by her fondness for sentences without verbs or subjects.  Like this.  It gives the writing a disjointed feel.  Distancing. An increased significance warranted. Or not. At times.

Maybe it's just my response, but I find it annoying and wish she wouldn't, given she writes beautifully most of the time.  There are the most fabulous descriptions of places and things - for example, this one picked at random describing a village in Spain: "Scarlet geraniums growing in old oil cans, the stripe of light and shade on a white-painted wall, a basket full of tiny silver fish" - so in general I forgive her the occasional clunk and carry on reading.  

But.  But, but, but.  Sentences without verbs or subjects haunt some student manuscripts.  It's as if they believe the randomly dividing up sentences confers additional weight to the story.  I long to confiscate their full stops and give them a fistful of commas instead.  Of course every writer sometimes uses broken sentences for effect, but it has to be a deliberate choice scattered sparsely or else it's simply irritating.  And an irritating story to read is one that remains unfinished. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

4 Ways to The Perfect Title

1. Look at other titles in the same area. 
With Adultery for Beginners, I had in mind Carol Clewlow's book A Woman's Guide to Adultery, which I thought was a brilliant title. I wanted something like that, though obviously my own. I played around with text book ideas, substituting adultery for maths, geography, whatever.

2. Write a list (it may be a very long list) of words you associate with the book.
This could be place names, character names, adjectives, themes, verbs, nouns... I knew what became Kissing Mr Wrong was about Lu's hunt for a mythical perfect man, so I was playing around with ideas about perfection and Mr Right eg Looking for Mr Right and so on. Then I turned it upside down - the book was really about her mistaken idea of who Mr Right was, and how she actually needed Mr Wrong.  

3. Find a phrase or bit of dialogue in the book that seems to say it all. 
In my second book, Oliver tells Anna as he's seducing her that "Nice girls do." The book is about nice girl Anna going off the rails, so it sort of fits. They do, and she does. BTW My working title for this was A Girl's Guide to Hedging and Ditching*, which was using the combination of no 1 and no 2, as Anna is a garden historian. 

4. Ask other people to brainstorm ideas. 
I'm always amazed by other people's take on things - if I ask a class for a list of adjectives I can bet that none of the ones I thought of will be mentioned.  Book No 4 obviously needed an Italian theme, preferably mentioning Rome. I had the longest list of words but still couldn't find a title. At one point I collared a bunch of my son's friends and had an impromptu eight person title brainstorming session. In the end, my lovely friend Nancy came up with A Single to Go, which needed just a bit of tweaking to become A Single to Rome.

That's 4 ideas - any more out there?

*I loved this, but my editor didn't.  Another Woman's Husband had the working title The Sex Lives of Hamsters, which she didn't like either.