writing


the leapStandards in self-publishing.

This whole argument feels like a perennial pinball machine, where opinions converge, collide, bend at impossible angles and ricochet off in another direction.

Debbie Young confronted the Elephant in the Room on the Self-Publishing Advice blog. Porter Anderson raised the topic via his Twitter debate #muse14. This phenomenon is the slightly awkward relative at a wedding, whose social skills are dubious, but you can’t get away from the fact you are related.

Let’s face it, lots of self-published books are crap. Whether that’s the cover, the writing or simply the concept, which might have been better off unpublished and retained as a private, personal seven-volume diatribe on vengeance / erotica / combustion engines.

It’s my hugest concern.

‘How could this be better?’ is the question I ask most. (This includes Where’s the corkscrew? Who the hell gave that git a driving licence? Do you need a pee and poo? – to husband, pugs and random strangers, not necessarily in that order.)

Self/indie publishing has many different perspectives. The radical and ground-breaking such as eightcutsgallerypress. The various methods of author collectives – genre, marketing, support, shared readership – all show that there is no one route to success.

When starting the Triskele Books collective, we set ourselves a challenge. Three elements were non-negotiable:

  • Our books will look professional
  • Every book must reflect our USP – Time and Place
  • Top quality writing

The first two points are pretty easy to judge, but the last, as we grow and learn, is far harder to define. What IS good writing? And who says so? We’ve worked together for years; as amateur critique partners, indie team-mates and now professional colleagues, thus we trust each other’s insight.

I could break down each of my books and tell you where the Triskelites made it better. I hope they’d say the same. Because we don’t settle for OK. It’s never ‘good enough’. It has to be the very best it can be, and that can take three or seven rewrites, a new cover design, or a total change of blurb.

New Triskele associates get that. These are writers prepared to listen, do the work and make a good book something exceptional. A collective depends on every single book being a flagship. You liked this? Well, there’s more where that came from. We’re currently reading the manuscripts from new potential associates, and offering structural/copy edit/line edit support, alongside marketing advice and collaborative opportunities.

This is what we do.

I’ve read some great books lately. Lowland, String Bridge, Night Train to Lisbon, A Funeral for an Owl, The Glass RoomThe Fleshmarket, Vlad the Inhaler, Spilt Milk: approximately 50/50 indie & trad published.

I’ve read some utter bilge, too. Seven (trad) books sit on the StinkPile, to be exchanged at the local coffee shop for something worth reading. At least six Kindle indies got deleted less than 10% in. Life’s too short for derivative, shallow and crappy – unless that’s what you’re looking for. (If so, you’re in luck – there’s a shedload.)

Standards.

I have them in reading. I want them in my writing. And as much as I am a bigmouthed, opinionated gobshite, I know other people’s input will take my work beyond my own reach. I hope mine can contribute in the same way.

On 1 April (I like to tempt fate) 2004, I quit my job and I moved to Switzerland to become a writer.

So today is my 10-Year Switzerversary!

Prost!

swiss collage

Dreams of floating around in white linen, scribbling perfect clauses on virgin vellum with a Montblanc evaporated pretty sharpish. Even working part time (teaching, directing, pulling pints), I had to supplement my income by rolling up my sleeves and ‘providing content’.

Content for business papers, English language teaching textbooks, lyrics for musical theatre, ghost-written articles for ladies’ magazines, advertising copy, editing MBA theses, speech-writing, interviews and a regular column: yes, grunt-work. But it paid the rent/dog food/wine merchant.

I dreamed that it would not only pay the bills, but leave me with enough time to knock out a novel every twelve months. Eight years later and three manuscripts locked in a bottom drawer, I published my first book.

So here’s to grunt-work. You taught me a shedload of lessons:

Discipline

As Jeanette Winterson says: Turn up for work. The whole “Absent Muse / I’m not in the mood / the words aren’t flowing” is crap. Write. Just write. Every single day. Produce the raw material. Then refine. You are a writer, not a princess. Just write.

Audience

Who are you talking to? ELT text requires universally comprehensible content across myriad linguistic backgrounds. Business coaching needs advice that’s snappy, short and immediately applicable. Shift your style to suit your readers and leave your ego in the hall. (Yes, I have rhymed honey with mummy – what of it?)

Bend

Use the word ‘impact’ as a verb, even if it hurts your teeth. Acknowledge the fact that ‘oversight’ has gone over to the dark side. They talk that way, so you must too. Accept the fact language is a growing, burgeoning phenomenon, with fungal offshoots such as ‘Gift Her This Mother’s Day!’ (Not only a hideous abuse of a noun, but ‘gift’ means poison in German.)

Deadlines

Last month, a headline interview for one of my magazines crashed and burned with a week to go before deadline. I scrabbled and searched and persuaded enough people to contribute quality content which met the brief in less than three days. Grunt-work makes you flexible.

People

Commissioning editors, actors, colleagues, teachers, critics, writers and author collective Triskele Books: all these people taught me compromise, accommodation, adjustment, balance and diplomacy. Listening and reading are labelled ‘passive’ skills. In an age where everyone produces, they’re anything but.

Dedication

Pianists practice scales. Artists study brushstrokes. Writers need to practise using their equipment. Those whose concepts exceed their technical skills will end up with a happy experiment or a disappointing mess. Learn the rules and choose when to conform.

Imagery

Selecting the right ambient words for a restaurant review or suitable suggestive vocabulary for an airline magazine article about in-flight romance is a skill in itself. What are you trying to say? How can you best convey it? Nibble, chew, suck, crunch or masticate? (That was for the restaurant, honest).

Gratification

Don’t write to fuel your ego. Likes and Shares and Retweets are nice. But if you want to satisfy one true fan, start with yourself. Ask yourself, would I, as a reader, love this? Or would I, in a cynical moment, think the writer is a bit of a git?

The End

Finish. Get through it, even if you hate the filthy rotten piece of sewage by the end. The achievement is writing X number of words and finding yourself at a resolution. You have, as one of my brilliant friends recently said, “… a pile of colourful wool. Now to knit it into a jumper”.

The Real Thing

Keep writing. Even when you’re sick of the screen, can’t bear any more words, feel dirty and tainted by the day job, do it again. But this time, for yourself. Shower off all the compromise and dive into a fresh page. Your words. Maybe they will never pay, but these words you own.

 

Whatever fun you’re having, Happy 1st April!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Third and last in my recognition series.

Click here for Part One – Structure, Style and Sentence

or Part Two – Individuality, Voice and Interference

Or access both by a mere flick of the wrist, as they both reside below.

Now to round up the nods, I want to talk Language, Passion and Discipline.

 

Amanda and I in Paris

Amanda and I, Paris Dec 2013

Language: Amanda Hodgkinson

On an early foray into online critique sites, I struck gold. Amanda’s analyses were helpful in many ways, especially in use of language. Anyone who read her international bestseller 22 Britannia Road will not be surprised by Amanda’s love for poetry. She became a trusted ally, pointing out how sentence rhythm, word patterns and imagery could all combine to create music on the page and in the mind. In conversations on writing and books, I feel Amanda strips away all pretension and makes me think about feeling.

Her second novel, Spilt Milk, is already garnering high praise. Deservedly so.

 

Passion: DB Miller

books-by-db-miller

Pile of Books, Zürich

I met DB at the first writers’ workshop I attended in this city and I knew immediately. Here lay talent, style, an alternative look at the world but most of all, passion. Whether writing articles about indie bookshops and the effects of live music or devising a cruelly funny black comedy, DB gives it everything.

Maybe it’s the American background combined with European experience, but DB won’t accept bland. Unless the passion shines through, the ache, the drive, the reason for writing, it’s not worth doing. That goes for everything, from novels to emails. DB’s initials act as a mnemonic for me. Don’t Bullshit.

 

Professionalism: Lorraine Mace

Lorraine at the Triskele launch, London 2012

In both senses of the word, Lorraine represents professionalism and discipline to me. She writes across various genres, she achieves an incredible output, she’s generous with her time and experienced advice, and she’s rigorous in her thought processes. I will always bear her gratitude for creating one of the most beneficial critique sites I’ve ever used and inventing the Daily Word Counter.

She doesn’t accept half-measures and administers an almighty whiplash if she finds you shirking. Quite simply, I’d never have finished three novels had it not been for Lo. Despite associating her with absolute discipline, the other quality I associate with Ms Mace is a great sense of humour.

Read her crime novels under the pseudonym Frances di Plino, and watch out for her children’s novel out soon: Vlad the Inhaler.

 

Ten Things, said I not? Here’s number ten.

Writers need writers. I could have included so many more brilliantly creative and constructive minds: Anne, Kristen, Jo, Julie, Perry, Joh, Bill, Sarah, Chris, Emma, Carl, Kit, the other Chris, the other Jo and all the Triskele team. Whether real or virtual, I need to interact with other scribblers.

I’ve learned a lot from these generous, skilled and talented folk. But I’m far from the finished article. So I still seek writers, still seek to improve and learn. I hope I always will.

Part Two:

Sheila, Max and Darren taught me a lot about structure, style and sentences. Other writerly friends have added their own generous intelligence to erode my rough edges. Here’s three more.

Individuality: Libby O

TIPE LibbyReal-life mate and word-nuancer, Libby was one of the first to encourage my individuality. She spotted what makes me different and exhorted me to chase it. Many critiquers thought humour should play no role in crime writing. Libby disagreed. She’s a brutal stickler when it comes to punctuation and has threatened me with a colonoscopy if I don’t learn how to use a semi-colon, but she sees what makes a voice distinctive. She also makes me laugh and think.

Look.

Voice: Lee Williams

lee wI sniffed this guy out on a peer critique forum very quickly. It wasn’t hard. He was always in the Top Ten, always gave constructive, practical feedback and understood the concept of voice better than anyone I’d come across. Lee demonstrates how attention to every single word choice adds precision to your style. He changes character, period, attitude and POV with such assurance, I suspect he’s actually a seasoned pro, moonlighting. Read a few of these next time you’ve got ten minutes to kill. Masterful.

Interference: John Hudspith

Lauren listening to a storyJohnny and I have bounced from critique site to writers’ forum; engaging, arguing, supporting and writing. He’s one of the best ever at wielding the paring knife. He sees when the ego begins to interfere, where the voice is not individual but borrowed, at which points external input smothers individual style and how to put it right. Every last one of my short stories deserves a credit to John. He makes you better. Even now, when I re-read what I’ve written, I can feel a phantom John on my shoulder, sighing and tsking and reaching for the red pen.

Check out Kimi’s Secret for An Officially Approved By Kids Adventure.

pierWherever I live in the world, I seek writers.

Regardless of genre or experience, I always learn from encounters with other word-wielders.

That can be critiques of my work, critiques on theirs, appreciation of distinctive skill or recognition of differences.

I’ve passed through half a dozen peer review sites and despite battling egos, trolls, princesses and carbon copies, I’ve taken something valuable from each.  I have three real life groups, two writer friends and an opinionated (but usually right) relative. All this input makes my work better.

Talented writers and readers add something crucial, usually to one of three areas of my work:

  • Structure
  • Style
  • Sentence

Nowadays, I tend to lean on my superbly talented Triskele counterparts for the grunt-work of knocking my work into readability. But I hereby tip my hat to nine individuals who’ve changed the way I write.

(I’ll divide this into three parts, as it’s Sunday and you have awards ceremonies/period drama to watch.)

Here are the first three precious stones.

Structure: Sheila Bugler

Sheila Bugler picAn online critique partner for years, Sheila has an expert eye for crime plotting. Her early analyses of my work were 70% enthusiasm and 30% criticism, which mattered a lot in my under-confident days. Then she took the gloves off.

Every plant must be resolved, each choice driven by character, and nothing can ever turn out as the reader expected. Pace is driven to meet audience expectations of the three act tempo. Stand back and assess your handiwork and if you see saggy bits, get stitching

Sheila’s brilliant debut, Hunting Shadows, is a masterclass in crime writing

Style: Max Orkis

Max-OrkisPart of a real-life, meet-in-person writing group here in Zürich, Max appreciated style better than most. He spoke his mind and insisted I did too. He pushed me to tell the truth in my writing and demonstrated how to get braver. No euphemisms, but tangible, meaningful nouns, verbs and culturally loaded imagery. Max wrote as he talked. Fearlessly. And regardless of personal original standpoint, he showed (and told) how to use any voice with conviction.

I miss him.

I don’t know why I’m using the past tense. He’s not dead, just gone back to San Francisco.

His short story, In Passing, published in The Milo Review is available online. Enjoy.

darren-guestSentence: Darren J Guest

I’ve never met Darren in person, but via online debates, discussions and right-down-to-the-bone knife fights over writing, we know each other pretty well.

Darren administers the harsh slap to Gerund Addiction: “Slipping off her shoes, Sophie sighed and relaxed. Sipping the gin and tonic restored her good mood. Pressing the answerphone, she stretched, sighed and smiled silkily.”*

And then gives you a good thrashing for alliteration and adverbials to boot.

(*I never wrote that – it was an example, honest.)

Darren’s Dark Heart is scary, smart, weird and brilliant. Just what good literature should be.

Three more great writers and their top tips next week.

jo stars

photo by JP Masclett

It’s such a terrible shame to see precious column inches wasted by someone talking out of their hole.

I thought I’d seen a fair few stupid things over the past week, but Lynn Shepherd’s absurd take on why JK Rowling should make way for other writers put the Flake in my idiot’s ice-cream. Here it is, if you’ve not read it, but it’ll be thirty seconds of your life you won’t get back.

If JK Rowling cares about writing, she should stop doing it.

Said ‘columnist’ admits to not having a clue in the first place. Making comments on Rowling’s literary merit while saying ‘never read a word’, ‘apparently’, ‘by all accounts’. Accepting the Potter novels were OK for kids (because children obviously have no critical judgement or comprehension of good storytelling) but it was a ‘shame’ to see adults read them.

As for ‘sucking the oxygen from the publishing industry’, JK Rowling is the same woman who encouraged a generation to fall in love with books and reading. The same woman who created a fanbase so loyal they would purchase her shopping list. Not by slagging off her peers, but by writing stories and characters people returned to again and again. The devious cow.

The claim that Rowling’s success leaves no room for others is presumably based on Shepherd’s  well-researched premise that readers only buy one book a year, critics only assess one novel a month and bookshops clear all their shelves so as to stock exclusively all things Rowling.

Lynn Shepherd, I know little about your journalism, but if this is anything to go by, I am less than eager to  seek out pieces attacking other writers purely for gaining more attention than you. I have no idea if you are a decent yet cruelly overlooked novelist, so shall refrain from comment. Even preceded by an ‘apparently’.

So, my plea to you, by all means keep spouting your opinion for your personal pleasure – it sure ain’t for anyone else’s – but when it comes to the publishing perspective you’ve had your turn. Enjoy your vast reputation for being a moron, luxuriate in the bliss only ignorance can bring, and good luck to you on both counts.

But it’s time to give other journalists an opportunity. They might even write something worth reading.

*Addendum*

Re one star reviews on Lynn Shepherd’s books: I see this as unfair extrapolation. Sure, the article quoted above was a cheap piece of Katie Hopkins style bear-baiting to attract attention. I stand by the piece I wrote above, retaliating against poor journalism. But leaving one star reviews and unpleasant comments on her books is simply sinking to the same level of trolling as the original.

Never underwire a sports bra.

Never underwire a sports bra.

As often happens during your average week, something I see on the Wonderful Worldwide Web rattles my cage. This week, it was this: Why We Love Literary Agents – NOT

Let me set out my stall from the start. I’m an indie publisher. No agent, no publishing house, no reason to be defending the system. I have an agent for translation rights because that is a field beyond my ken

Authors love a good bout of agent bashing, and in some aspects, I understand why the frustrations at scaling the wall of recognition results in bitterness and bile. But there’s another side to the story. I write The Agent’s View column for Words with JAM magazine. I’ve interviewed, met, collaborated with and learned from many of these snaggle-toothed demons, and with one notable exception (not quoted below), found passion, energy, commitment, expertise and love. Yes, love. A real love for terrific stories and wonderful storytellers.

And here are a selection of quotes to show why I love good literary agents.

Shelley Power

How would you describe the author-agent relationship?

I think the author-agent relationship has to be somewhat intimate.  My authors are also my friends, I like them! The agent is the one consistent person in the life and career of an author when editors move on and change houses. I fulfil several roles: editor, business adviser, friend, agony aunt (occasionally) and increasingly, I find myself involved in marketing and publicity.

Hannah Westland (Previously RCW, now editor at Serpent’s Tail)

Why do writers need an agent? Why not work directly with a publisher?

Some small publishers prefer that. But I would say that an agent will put your interests first, by trying to sell your rights all over the world, getting you the best deal across various media. Whereas a publisher will put their own interests above yours.

Christian Dittus http://www.fritzagency.com/en/

The world of books is changing fast – what elements depress you and which make you optimistic?

Editorial savvy and instinct are increasingly being replaced by marketing considerations; it’s become rare that an editor acquires a book because he or she thinks that it’s a great book, or an important book, or both. And the imbalance between production (publishing) and distribution (bookselling) continues in the digital marketplace, where publishers – the providers of “content” – seem to be on the same fateful road as they were in the bricks-and-mortar trade, by giving e-booksellers (internet platforms; formerly: bookstore chains) ever more power, and an ever bigger piece of the revenue pie in the form of disproportionate discounts. With this practice they give away the very ground they stand on, they make it hard if not impossible for smaller publishers to compete, and they leave next to nothing to the authors.

On the other hand, new impulses and fresh ideas often come from small, independent houses, and fortunately there seems to be no end of start-up publishers with a vision; true, they often have more idealism than money, but that’s where innovation comes from. And every day a great book is being written or published, and every day hungry readers are out to discover great writing.

Laura Longrigg http://www.mbalit.co.uk/content/laura-longrigg

Do authors sometimes have unrealistic expectations of an agent’s role? How do you see the agent/author relationship?  

Some authors think that once they have an agent, the job is done, they now will get a publisher.  That sadly isn’t always the case, however much you as the agent may be passionate about the author’s work, it is no use if you don’t find an editor who shares that passion and can actually persuade their colleagues to let them publish it.

Often the agent makes no money for months if not years in the early stages of a relationship with an author, so we can be working for nothing until a book gets sold and that means an agent has to be really passionate about an author’s work and can clearly see that the author has publishing potential, not just for one book but several, and not just in the UK but internationally. The relationship is therefore to my mind based on trust, shared hard work, and belief in the author’s work.

Svetlana Pironko http://www.authorrightsagency.com/

The world of books is changing fast – what elements get you down and which make you optimistic?

What gets me down is the general depreciation of intellectual property. How can we blame readers for forgetting that writing and publishing a book requires talent and represents a huge amount of work, often years of it?

I am all in favour of e-books, and it would be stupid to try to go against the tide anyway. But I hope that both publishers and readers will keep in mind that content is much more important than the support and will pay for it, pay writers for their work.

What makes me optimistic? There will always be writers and there will always be readers. At least, I hope so. Isn’t it part of what makes us human?

Jane Gregory http://www.gregoryandcompany.co.uk/

How will the role of agents change, do you think?

The role of the agent has been subtly changing for some time. We are there to represent and protect our authors, our role has changed in that we probably are needed more than ever to guide and manage an author’s career.

Jonny Geller http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/jonny-geller/

Are agents now doing the job of editors and editors doing the work of marketers?

That’s too simplistic. Agents have been moving towards the editorial side for over ten years. And in today’s climate, you can’t sell a book that isn’t at least 80% there. So the agent works with the author to get it to that stage. In the old days, agents had lunch with publishers, pitched an idea they were excited about and by mid afternoon, a deal was on the table. Now, months of work precede that pitch, including putting a marketing plan in place. After a sale, it’s the agent who continually lobbies to raise the author’s profile, organises the blurb, gets quotes for the jacket and so on. Put it this way, it’s like walking someone home. It used to be that the agent would take the author all the way to the gate. Now they have to come inside the house with you.

Nathan Bransford http://nathanbransford.com/

Has the standard of editing declined?

No, I don’t believe so. I think there’s a bit of mythology surrounding past golden eras of books, that look shinier in retrospect because all the duds are out of print. Editors still edit.

Pete Morin (author) on his agent Christine Witthohn http://www.bookcentsliteraryagency.com/

I stumbled upon a literary agent who not only understood the changes that were coming, but embraced them, and encouraged me and several other of her authors to self-publish. Dumb luck.

Julia Churchill http://www.amheath.com/about-us

How do you feel when you sign a new client?

Every agent knows the feeling and you can read it on our faces. An agent who’s just signed up someone extraordinary looks a bit different to the one who hasn’t got their new project. They’ll look like they’ve just come back from a spa-break or honeymoon – shoulders down, brow smooth and filled with trust in the world and the promise of great things to come. You know when you meet a friend you haven’t seen for a while – and you can tell in a second that they’re in love? It’s just like that.

And my all-time favourite agent for common sense, market savvy and generosity of spirit, Andrew Lownie http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/

You’ve set up Thistle Publishing, your own imprint. How come?

Many agencies were dipping their toes in the market pushing reverted backlist titles or filling territorial gaps where books had not sold such as in America. I decided to be more ambitious and was influenced by your very own writers’ conference in Zurich last October where it was clear changes in the industry were being driven by authors, and agents would be left behind if they didn’t embrace the revolution taking place.

Andrew regularly shares articles on his website explaining what editors are seeking. Inside info that authors need to know. http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/articles

So yes, I love literary agents, because they champion great stories and fight for their authors. And what better-trained eyes to find a diamond in the ash?

Creative control of my own work is a truly glorious feeling. Yes, it has its scary moments, but I trust my own judgement and that of the team I have assembled to bring my books to life. The editors, the proofreaders, the designer, the artist and the readers. I also trust the people who sell the book and place great value on their opinions.

I’ve published three paperbacks.

BCD kindleBook One, Behind Closed Doors, is my bestseller. Possibly because it’s a Zurich-set crime novel, and has the powerful support of local bookshops, which in turn attract Swiss bookclubs, who recommend it to their friends and so on. Word of mouth.

Tread Softly pb coverBook Three, Tread Softly, sells almost as well. This one, which deals with crime and corruption in Rioja country, found a curious market via the wine trade. Good job I took my research so seriously. I know from booksellers that the cover is a major attraction. People stroke it.

Raw Material_Cover_Paperback_MEDIUMNow what has happened to Book Two – Raw Material?

The story works – the feedback tells me it’s a favourite – and the ebook is selling on a par with the other two. So why is the paperback selling 50% fewer copies than the others?

I asked questions. Readers and booksellers alike told me that the cover simply didn’t carry the same appeal. Now, I love that cover. I commissioned it from the same brilliant artist who painted books one and three. But whether I love it or not is immaterial. If it doesn’t appeal to readers, I need to make a change.

Thankfully, I can. No one else but me can decide what my books look like. I talked to cover artist James, and we discussed why the original image wasn’t sufficiently alluring. The dawn beach scene illustrates a moment from the book, although the majority of the story is set in London. My other two covers create an atmosphere – they don’t try to tell the story. The cover image should trigger the reader’s imagination, not replace it.

Because James is one of the coolest people I know, he took this in the same spirit as I had and threw his energy into finding an image that would work. We referenced the work of Edward Hopper and drew on the observatory nature of his work. The themes of Raw Material are all about watching, covetousness and interpretation. James has an incredible skill with light and shade, which also played into the final image.

We bounced ideas and sketches between Switzerland and California before finally agreeing on composition, colour and atmosphere. When he’d finished, I squeaked with glee and genius graphic designer JD Smith worked her magic in adding the final elements.

So here it is. The new-look paperback cover of Raw Material.

Raw Material_Cover_Paperback NEW PRINT-page-001

With heartfelt thanks to James Lane, whose video of the painting can be found here – 90 seconds of creative process to the noir feel of Gavin Bryars.

 

w4yp-transparent-smallAdvice from the experts

On Saturday, thirty-five people gathered at Zürich’s Volkshaus to spend a day learning about writing for young people at a workshop organised by Nuance Words. The experts were Julia Churchill, children’s agent with AM Heath, and Sara O’Connor, editor at Hot Key Books.

So many useful ideas came out of the discussions and questions that it was impossible to summarise in one post. So I divided the day into two reports.

Yesterday, Julia talked about being a children’s agent. What she does, what she looks for and what makes a great book.

Sara_OConnor_3Today, Sara breaks down the elements of writing with some practical exercises of how to improve your manuscript and avoid all those beginners’ mistakes.

Sara’s excitement and enthusiasm was so infectious, even those of us who don’t write for young people learned something as she took us through:

  • World-building
  • Character
  • Plot
  • Revision

World-building

DO: Release the storyworld information slowly. Use one piece of description every 20 lines and make it earn its place.

DON’T: Have characters comment on this world which is familiar to them. Don’t fill on backstory describing how they got here. Let that filter through via story.

EXERCISE: Highlight three small but powerful world-building details in your opening pages. Now find one unnatural thing a character would not do. Delete the latter.

50% of submissions I receive have some fantasy element. Authors think that’s original. It isn’t. Everything’s already been done so be exceptional.

Character

DO: Plant details which allow the reader to join the dots. Find authentic depth and true motivation to your MC’s behaviour.

DON’T: Underestimate your reader. Physical description is no substitute for personality – that cliché of having characters look in a mirror and describe themselves? Please don’t.

EXERCISE: Write a scene where the character closes his/her eyes. Use other senses to create stimuli and use character to create interpretation.

EXERCISE: Answer these questions about your MC

  1. What’s the first thing s/he does that makes the reader care?
  2. Why do I want to be her/him?
  3. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  4. What’s the one thing s/he would never admit?

 How can you use those last two answers to create tension?

Plot

DO: Make sure your characters’ choices drive the plot. When outlining your scenes, use the word ‘because’ rather than ‘then’. That way, you describe why, not what, and keep closely tied to character and motivation.

DON’T: Force it. If your original plan isn’t working, try writing it a different way, using the opposite reaction.

EXERCISE: Identify your Obligatory Scene. What’s the event you set up in the early chapters – confrontation, kiss, discovery – and when do we get the pay-off? Is it the biggest and best scene in the book?

Revision

DO: Embrace it. Revising is what makes it a better book and you a better writer.

DON’T: Confuse this with proofreading. Revision means seeing your story with different eyes. If possible, find a beta reader/critique buddy you trust.

EXERCISE: Take your first page and cut twenty words. Ask yourself if it’s better. Identify what you cut and why. Then cut another twenty.

EXERCISE: Take your chapter-by-chapter outline and cut a chapter where nothing pushes plot or character development forward. Can the material you deleted be fed in elsewhere?

Read. Read across genres, read across age ranges, read books for your core reader. Just read. If you don’t read books for children, don’t try and write one.

w4yp-transparent-smallAdvice from the experts

On Saturday, thirty-five people gathered at Zürich’s Volkshaus to spend a day learning about writing for young people at a workshop organised by Nuance Words. The experts were Julia Churchill, children’s agent with AM Heath, and Sara O’Connor, editor at Hot Key Books.

So many useful ideas came out of the discussions and questions that it’s impossible to summarise in one post. So I’ve divided the day into two reports.

julia-churchillFirst, Julia on being a children’s agent. What she does, what she looks for and what makes a great book.

Tomorrow, Sara breaks down the elements of writing with some practical exercises of how to improve your manuscript and avoid the beginners’ mistakes.

Julia began by explaining the role of an agent. She impressed us all with her passion for books, her dedication to her writers and her willingness to talk openly about what does, and doesn’t work for her.

 As an agent I spot talent and help develop it and then sell it.  And then do whatever I can to make a career for each author and support and back them along the way.

008Giving an overview of the market, she explained the changes in publishing have influenced the retail environment, so that saleability becomes an increasingly important factor. So if she sends a book to an editor at a publishing house, and that editor loves it, the next step is to convince the whole company, including sales and marketing, that this is something they should buy. It’s not always easy.

Acquisitions meetings often end with blood on the walls

010If they want the book, Julia negotiates the best possible deal for the author, taking into account all the different rights issues: selling direct to international markets, merchandising, TV and film, audio, computer games, royalties, discount rates.

The relationship is long-term. The agent is there to help with ideas of how to develop that author’s career and a business partner.

Of course agents are aware of trends, but realistically, the time it takes to get a book to market means that the dystopian/paranormal romance/magical powers trend will be overcooked and saturated.

The next big thing is currently being created in some writer’s shed. I have no idea what it is yet, but it will have these key elements:

CONCEPT

This is what I look for in the query letter. The hook, the premise, that something original. I talk more about freshness in publishing than I did when I worked in fruit & veg.

CHARACTER

With great characters, who they are, their nature, matters. Physical description is really to reveal character – it has little value in and of itself.

STORY

I’m attracted to simplicity and focus. What do the characters stand to win, or lose? The No 1 problem with most debut books? Too much going on.

SETTING

A vivid setting becomes a character in its own right. It should be so imbued with emotion it couldn’t happen anywhere else.

THEME

The feeling you are left with when you finish the book, this is the heart of your story. But beware of preaching. Maurice Sendak said, ‘I have never written a book with a lesson’.

VOICE

This is the thing that connects with your core reader: the excitable five year old, the adventure-hungry nine year old, the slighty aggro teenager.

START STRONG

Agents only read the first few chapters so make sure everything is there from the off. Get in late, get out early. Begin when the action begins and cut the rest. I get about twenty submissions a week which begin with an alarm clock going off. Be spare, make every word count, hit the ground running.

007

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