Sunday, 28 February 2016

Writing for Beginners (15)

Planning your Novel (pt 1)

Continuing my early articles for writing beginners on the art of writing. (With thanks to Writing Magazine for allowing me to use them). Also available in paperback and ebook in a compilation called 'Write On! - the writer's help book'.

This might seem a little out of place, coming at No 15, but these pieces have been chosen at random from all the articles published. However, I decided now would be a good point to mention how my approach to the physical act of writing is thanks in part to my father and his various quirks. One that occurred to me recently was his passion for planning car journeys. Okay, so where’s this going?

(Stick with me; it’s a tenuous link, I admit, but very relevant).

Father’s approach to planning involved many cups of tea and more maps than Montgomery’s North Africa campaign. And it seemed to take about the same amount of time. Actually, trotting across the desert would have been child’s play to him, because he’d done it for real, back when men used Brylcream instead of fancy 'product' and wore giant shorts made of canvas with regulation creases down the front so they could stand upright by themselves. (Photo court of Imperial War Museum)

Whatever the trip, he planned rest stops, with places of interest to visit en route. Not that they were of much interest to the rest of us, but that’s another story. Essential to this were lay-bys or pull-ins where he could fire up the portable stove for a brew, complete with camping chairs (a matter of toe-curling embarrassment for my brother and me). He also planned locations for emergency overnight stops – nearly always, it seemed, in a field with a slope just to keep us on our toes throughout the night. He was very good that way.

But he always got us there and back, wherever 'there' was, because he worked to a plan.

This degree of forethought has often come back to me when working on a novel, because embarking on a book is much like taking a journey. You don’t always know where it will lead, and circumstances might force a change of direction along the way … but at least you should avoid too many wrong turnings and ending up in somebody’s prize manure heap. It therefore makes sense to plan before you leave. If you don’t, as my old man was wont to say, you could end up going round and round and vanishing up your own fundament.

In short, planning helps you explore the possibilities in your writing and maximise the potential of a storyline … and deal with some of the pitfalls you might encounter along the way.

There are, of course, authors who do not plan. They simply sit down and write, the words pouring forth in a fair old gush of consciousness. Lucky them. On the other hand, none of us knows how long they’ve been thinking about it.

So how to plan? Well, there are various methods and levels to use, among them the following:

1. Rough sketch. Anything from back-of-an-envelope scratchings to a casual list of how you see the story going. This is planning at its most basic – but can lead on to so much more if it opens up the thinking process.

2. Book synopsis. A more orderly storyline ‘telling’ the story in brief detail so you can follow a more-or-less pre-determined path. This kind of synopsis would be used in the same way when approaching agents or publishers, but hopefully a ‘cleaned up’ version complete with the characters and – most importantly – the ending.

3. Chapter synopsis. This calls for greater detail showing the progression by chapter, but presumes a greater focus on sticking tightly to the storyline. This way, each chapter becomes almost a mini-book, showing the beginning, middle and end.

4. Key point indicator. Taking up from the rough sketch, this method might be useful, for example, when planning a thriller, showing the main bursts of action and tension which would form the backbone of your plot. You still have to fill in all the gaps in between, but this offers a useful framework to start with.

5. Diary plan. The timeline - the chronology of events in the correct order - is often the most difficult bit to get right. Creating a diary (whether the story takes place over an hour or several days/weeks, it doesn’t matter) is essential for keeping everything in the right order, so that you don’t find events tripping over each other, or characters out of position. This method is particularly useful when the timing and duration of events is crucial to the story, especially when taking place over a very tight time-span, where every second or minute counts.

6. Character biographies. This can be anything from a couple of lines of description to a full biography, showing background, age, family, education, jobs, relationships and so forth. If your story is character-led, knowing how they might react according to type is vital. It ensures you keep the physical characteristics constant, too. Cutting out a photo of someone resembling each of your characters is a useful way of doing this and keeps the faces fresh in your memory.

7. Theme? Could you describe your book in one sentence (the elevator pitch of film fame)? Settling on the basic story and theme in easily described shorthand might help put it into perspective, even in your own mind.

Even given my father’s benign, Monty-esque influence, I prefer a mix of 1 and 4, with a dash of 5. But that’s just me. Whatever your choice of method, each can contribute in its own subtle way to the planning process, because they can help you maintain control and focus on where the book is going.

·        Planning helps clarify direction and method.
·        Having a plan helps you focus and saves time and effort.
·        A plan will show you the possibilities, potential and pitfalls of your story.
·        Good planning means you already have some of the work done before you begin writing.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Writing for Beginners (14)

Just For The Record

Continuing my early articles for writing beginners on the art of writing. (With thanks to Writing Magazine for allowing me to use them). Also available in paperback and ebook in a compilation called 'Write On! - the writer's help book'.

A question which occurs to many an aspiring writer (of books or articles) is the thorny one of credibility. It usually goes like: ‘I haven’t written much, so will my lack of a track record count against me?’ This concern that a distant editor will not take them seriously unless they can demonstrate previously published work is very real.
However, the simple answer is, you can’t do much about it at this stage of your writing career, so don’t worry. But you can overcome it.

As a general rule, unless you are writing an authoritative non-fiction work where a recognised degree of expertise is required to add weight to the project, the question of track record should count somewhat less than the article or story itself. As far as fiction is concerned, most editors are interested in the story content, not whether you can fill a whole shelf of your local bookshop or library.

Submissions are rejected all the time for all manner of reasons; wrong target market, poor quality writing, repetition, lack of ‘spark’, editor’s toothache on a wet Monday. But while a known author might have a degree of edge over a complete unknown in the initial reading stages, there is so much demand for fresh content that unknowns get their first acceptance letter every day of the week.

By the same token, ‘knowns’ get their fair share of rejections, too.

This might add weight to the suspicion that publishers don’t really know what they want until they see it. Given the shifting nature of readers’ interests, this suspicion is not entirely without foundation.

Instead of a disadvantage, this should be seen as good news for writers everywhere. A changing, even volatile reading market means it's ripe for trying out new topics. Even tapping into a known subject with an entirely fresh approach will often catch an editor’s eye, whereas a weary piece following a well-trodden path will whistle off the desk into the ‘not this one’ file quicker than a fried egg off a greasy plate.

With non-fiction, it is important to present an accurate, well-researched and interesting piece of work which shows you have a good grasp of your subject matter. If you can also claim some familiarity or connection with the topic, then you should let the editor know in your covering letter, especially if it's your first submission. A well-written inside track often beats an outside observer hands down.

If you don't have this, you can only let your writing speak for you. (N.B: If submitting magazine or web articles, a selection of good-quality photos to back up your feature will stand a better chance of catching an editorial eye than a page of text by itself. If the editor doesn't have to source photos, it saves them time and money - and you get paid for supplying them instead).

With fiction, it is the story that counts. Yes, a known name below the title will stand out to begin with, but the writing itself is the main decider. And this is where you are on your own, with only your skill as a story-teller to get you through.

So, with such a stacked deck against you, what can you do?

Well, it's the oldies but goodies here. You can open with a bang, for a start. Let that first line stand out by making it a belter. Don't have your story beginning with a whole page of solid, stodgy text – it’s an entertainment, not an instruction manual in a tractor factory. Put in some dialogue, keep the paragraphs short and snappy, ditto the chapters - this adds pace - and make the page look lively and interesting.

If writing a magazine article, your text will appear in narrow columns on the magazine page, so you need to break it up to take account of this.

Try introducing some light humour in your dialogue. Few conversations in life (unless they involve a divorce court or a dismissal letter) are devoid of humour, and there is no reason why your writing shouldn't reflect this. It doesn't need to be a string of jokes, but humour can be indicated by the dialogue, mannerisms or reactions of your characters. In fact, if you find your characters actually taking over, to the extent that they begin to say or do things you hadn't planned (no, you’re not in the twilight zone, I promise – it does happen), then let them; it will seem more natural.

Your first acceptance, of course, is a huge leap. Having achieved that and with the printed words on the page to prove it, you can now demonstrate that you have done it – a great morale booster for the future.

Until then, all you can do is turn in the most professional, accurate and entertaining pieces you can write. Note the plural: never sit back and wait to see what one submission produces. Get on with the next project. And whether a book or article, if it comes back, be prepared to take any comments seriously, re-read and re-work where necessary... and submit somewhere else.

It’s what writers do.


·        The only way to build a track record is by writing it.
·        The market needs content, ideas and, above all, submissions. Why not yours?
·        Be reliable, professional and on time. A solid reputation counts.
·        Finish one project, start another. It’s called writing.



Thursday, 4 February 2016

My latest articles in Writing Magazine

The March issue of Writing Magazine brings as usual a host of advice, tips, interviews and lots more. Among them is my 'Beginners' page, this one titled The ABC of Being a Writer.

There are all manner of so-called aspects to this strange profession of writing, most of them changeable, some arcane, others a matter of following common sense if you want to succeed and prosper, like this example:

O is for Opening. Start with a bang, not a whimper. Grab the reader by the throat and drag them into your world. You'll only get once chance, so make it a good one.

Others are more light-hearted in tone, but worth noting, if only for one's well-being. It's a lonely business and very easy to wander off-track and lose sight of what's important.


Also in this issue is my profile of debut author, Catherine Hokin, whose novel 'Blood and Roses' (Yolk Publishing) came out last month.

Telling the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-82), wife of Henry VI, it is described as a feminist revision of a woman frequently imagined as a shadowy figure, a woman capable of power but trapped in a marriage born to be a saint.

Catherine is currently working on her second book, an exploration of the 14th century relationship between Katherine Swinford and John of Gaunt.