Sunday, 19 February 2017

Dear New Author (1)


Dear New Author,

I'm writing to you about your first book, Sinking In The Amazon. I may write you further letters. I don't know how well you deal with constructive criticism, but having got this far I assume you're pretty good at it. So don't take any of this the wrong way. I know if I revisit my books I'll find improvements that could be made. It's never-ending because our craft keeps improving. Which is a great thing! I count myself lucky that I've worked with literary editors who are straight to the point and pull no punches. Thanks to that I learned a lot each time. Particularly with my first relationship novel, for which I got whacked with the stick so many times I couldn't walk straight.

"Show don't tell!"
"Let the reader do the work!"
"Be more concise!"
"Is this detail really important?"
"You are repeating yourself!"
"Cut to the bloody chase!"

Yes, my editor wrote all those things and more. But they stuck in my mind. Even if you don't want to revisit your book, the stuff you learn after publication will be worth bearing in mind for your next book. You will write one, won't you? The successful writer is the one that doesn't give up. (And the one that keeps improving). So I'll give you some of my thoughts, and I hope you'll see them as well-meaning advice, some of which is vital, some which is hogwash, since I'm no more right than the next man/woman/demon. Though I often edit fiction, so that gives me an edge over supernatural entities that don't.

Firstly: don't be overly disheartened by the negative reviews you received. On the other hand, it is worth analysing any information you can get hold of as to why the people didn't like your book. In some cases it just isn't their cup of tea, or isn't their genre of preference: nothing you can do about that (apart from make sure the cover, blurb and categories metadata are correct and clearly indicate what kind of book it is). But if an issue comes up enough then it is worth considering.

Okay, structure: an issue with your book is that too much of it was setup. According to my Kindle I was 40% through the book before anything major happened, tied to the central arc. Up until then we just followed your protagonist Johnny Bigballs on his daily routine. The novel only really picks up after he finds the gun, so shorten the first bit, get rid of some repetition, get to the hotness sooner, let it shine front and foremost. Every scene in a novel needs to do something concrete in terms of revealing things or moving plot along, not just passing time. If it's really important make that clearer. Because it is good once it gets going! That Johnny, what a character, eh? You just need to crank up the engine sooner. Focus on that escalating series of events - each has to have a greater risk for the protagonist than the last. In terms of how quickly we get to the tension I like to think of other books. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is fantastic (despite that author's abuse of apostrophes). Cormac could have begun the book by showing the relationship of the protagonist with his wife, the war starting, how they survived in the house, the wife leaving - but no. He begins at the point of highest drama, tells the story from there, using flashbacks if required, and it keeps the reader tense. We begin at the core of the real story: the boy and his father. By the way, you might think "I can't shorten the setup, there's so much I need to say" but think about short stories - they might be able to get across a lifetime of background in just a page. Obviously we don't have to do that in novels, we have room to breathe, but we all know it can be done.

Another way to crank it up is to use subplots. Novels need conflict, but apart from the central murder (committed by tickling someone to death, which was certainly original), your novel has no other plots running in parallel, nothing to give it depth. Everyone Johnny meets is really nice to him - colleagues, police, family, friends, torturers. So it is harder for the reader to feel engaged. We need conflict between desires and outcomes, between characters - add some extra strands and increase the tension.

I want to mention use of detail. When to include it, when to omit. It felt like I was often told everything Johnny did, every trip to the toilet, even if it didn't reveal anything new or move the plot along; yet other times I wanted to know details and they weren't given. I'll give some examples.
  • A few times he sat down to watch his favourite old films, and cried: but the films were never named, which makes it feel a bit unreal. It helps to create sounds and memories and tell us more about him if we know what he watched. There's a world of difference between him crying while watching It's A Wonderful Life, versus The Exorcist, or Porky's II: The Next Day.
  • Likewise when Johnny spies on martial arts classes, none of the martial arts are named, turning the concrete to vagueness. Martial arts do not all look, sound, feel or smell the same. There’s variety: from the bangs of judo throws, to the kiai shouts and punches of a karate class sparring, to the silence and effortless throws (and lots of rolling on the floor/ukemi) of aikido. If you spend the time talking about something, piquing the reader's interest, then you have to seal the deal.
Okay, let's look at one error, and ideas for fixing it.

"If Greasy Bill had come over here with the bomb instead of going to the pub. That would be me and my daughters on the news."

The full stop leaves the clause unfulfilled.  It needs joining.

"If Greasy Bill had come over here with the bomb instead of going to the pub that would be me and my daughters on the news."

Or you could pause for emphasis:

"If Greasy Bill had come over here with the bomb instead of going to the pub ... that would be me and my daughters on the news."

Or maybe even better:

"If Greasy Bill had come over here with the bomb instead of going to the pub ..."

i.e. leave it hanging and let the reader do the work. There's often a temptation to explain too much. Sometimes we don't need to. Trust the reader to fill in the blanks.

General tips for you.
  • Don't repeat things multiple times, in different ways. She agreed, then she nodded, then the narrator says she was sure it was right ... This happens quite a bit, and many words could be cut which would speed up the novel.
  • Johnny summons a policeman when he suspects danger next door, but never insists the policeman check inside the house, even though Johnny has a spare key. I wanted to yell at him to do this: Johnny was far too passive. Never miss a chance to let a character make a decision, to overcome a challenge! As it is, this scene is not earning its keep the way it could, tying elements of the novel together, and you missed the opportunity to weave in tension.
Okay, that's me done. Don't be put off, but if a few of those things are useful, or lead to a bit of revision, great. They could help fix some of the criticisms in the negative reviews if you're willing to put in more work. And trust me, nothing I've said is as harsh as what my current editor says to me. Once she told me "I skipped this chapter, pretty much. You'd bored me and I couldn't face it."
After that I went back and did some major re-thinking. And it was all the better for it.

Good luck with the book! I want to know what Johnny Bigballs does next!

Karl

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NB This is not a real letter, but it is a combination of points I made in some past editing commissions, anonymised and merged together. There are further examples in my post 13 Tips for Writers. Oh, the book and the characters I refer to are fictitious too. Though I'd possibly buy it if it was published.

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Friday, 17 February 2017

Review: "Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel (A Memoir)"


My review of Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel (A Memoir)

I don't normally read memoirs. They strike fear into my heart as potentially being Trojan horses for egomaniacs. Everyone has a story to tell, why should someone think theirs is of interest to others? Well, the answer is already there - we all have stories to tell. Whether fiction or not, there are patterns in lives, and there are experiences in common, and characters where we can identify feelings and behaviour and say, "Yes, I have felt that too." This is why we read. And that's why it was a pleasure to read this.

Firstly, you can tell you are in safe hands. Jessica knows when we need detail, and when we don't; when the reader can be guided, and when the reader can be trusted; and that restraint was one of the things that first endeared me to the book. Jessica is an experienced author/creator, and this is far from her first work. As such it is well-written and polished. More than that, it is crafted with a fiction-writer's sensibilities. There is foreshadowing. There is repeated imagery. There is structure holding it together. There is an arc. If someone had never written a book before then I would not recommend that they tried a memoir, but in the hands of someone who understands the craft it can be as readable as any work of fiction.

And it was readable. Some books are a chore to return to, but this was a joy, so I read it quickly whilst still savouring the obvious love of language in phrases like "my innocence still finding excuses to outshine my demons" and "I wore psychological earplugs like a nun wore her habit". I'm kicking myself for not marking a few that made me laugh, that were ripe for revisiting and rolling around in my mind. So if you like good writing, there's plenty to feast on here.

The best books are a journey (physical or mental); and there is development, often maturation, for the main character. I was wrong to be suspicious of a memoir, because both of those important elements drive and shape this narrative. I'll admit it. I was won over. I genuinely enjoyed this, and I think you might, too.

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Thursday, 16 February 2017

Paper Celebrates An Author

From the Cambrian News, 2nd February 2017, page 8

I know, I know! I already talked about my appearance on the 2016 Bram Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot list here! But when I popped up in a newspaper as a result I couldn't resist sharing it above. (It was in their online version too).

[Note that I am not actually "shortlisted" - that's an error on the part of the newspaper. If anything, I am on the longlist. The shortlist of nominees is announced on 23rd February.]

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Friday, 10 February 2017

Reading Addicts - A New E-book Service


It's exciting to be in something from the start. Well, a new service has just been launched: Reading Addicts. Sign up and you'll get a weekly email listing e-books in various genres that are discounted or newly-released. You can unsubscribe at any time. Not only is the service itself free, but just by signing up you get your pick of some great great e-books - again, totally free. Give it a go!

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Sunday, 5 February 2017

Writing While Under The Influence, And Method Writing

Pirates do it better with grog - yes, that was me, in character for a game of Libertalia

The Effect Of Writing While Under The Influence

Some writers prefer to write while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as illustrated by this Guardian article "Why do writers drink?". Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, William Burroughs, Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald: they were all known to mix altered states of mind with creative work. Some of my writer friends have indulged in this way. Some of them still do. Some of them stopped, saying that as they got older it just made them tired - so now they only write under the influence of hot chocolate. Another told me she used to write while on speed: pages and pages of it. But it turned out to be drivel. One friend said he'd written his best ever short story while stoned - unfortunately he forgot to save it and it was lost forever. One common theme seems to be that it is a fine balance: too little or too much is disaster, but there's a cusp of creativity which works perfectly if you can attain it. Another common theme is that if you hand-write the draft, it may be unreadable the next day in the cold light of sobriety.

I prefer to write when I'm most alert, calm, and full of energy. That's usually in the morning, after my first cup of tea and a good night's sleep. I find it easier to arrange notes, consider plot points and beats, merge ideas into scenes, whilst sitting back and letting characters attain some independence. Writing for me is quite a cerebral act, juggling hundreds of ideas and phrases and trying to judge it so they land on the page in the most pleasing combinations.

Method Writing

The exception is if I'm trying to capture the experience I'm writing about. Some authors call this "method writing". So if I'm writing about someone getting gradually more tipsy while music is playing too loud then I might get tipsy while music plays too loud. Of course, you then need to edit-edit-edit the raw output to cut out the crap; embedded in the slush will be a few gems that enhance the finished scenes. They can be selected, extracted and polished when back in a normal frame of mind. Recording experiences is handy for getting a few key images or feelings that capture the experience in media res, and first-hand experience helps to avoid cliche. In 2000 Tunes one of the protagonists does a lot of drugs during a bad period in her life, so I could have a sub plot of her cleaning up her act. I'd had no experience with the drug in question, or with the sensations of snorting, so did experiments and recorded it all so I could use some of them as detail in the scenes. It's just another form of research. In that case research that made me sneeze a lot.

Option B: Partial Experiences

There are limits. You're after capturing the thoughts and sensations in order to escape from cliche and trite expectations, not replicating anything harmful to yourself or others. If you're writing about nearly drowning in an arctic sea you are not going to try it for real. But you might try climbing into an ice-cold bath for a partial experience of it. If you're writing about someone exhausted from a week of sleep deprivation and hunger you wouldn't replicate it exactly, but you might stay up for one night, or do a 24 hour fast to get an idea of what the character might go through. When I wrote Sinker (in They Move Below) I visited a loch at night so I could capture the sounds and smells and sights the main character experienced.

One of the problems with lazy writing (and something that leads me to get out my whip when I am working on a client's novel) is its habit of falling back on stock phrases and descriptions. They fail. They do not capture the essence of being in a situation. And when the showing fails, the writer has to fall back on too much telling, and we all know where that leads. Writing must be fresh. Otherwise what's the point? We've all eaten enough stale croissants for a lifetime, we don't need any more.

Option C: Speak To People

Finally: if you can't face even a hint of method writing then make use of interviews. Speak to people who know what it's like to get drunk on absinthe, or to work a twelve hour shift in a supermarket, or to run a dog boarding house, or to fall out of a tree. Their words will probably capture the essence of the experience better than falling back on what other writers have already said.

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