Wednesday, 30 March 2011

THE MASTER CRIMINAL NOVELIST AT WORK

Today we're going to talk about writing a crime series. Well, I'm not, because I don't know anything about it, but I'm going to ask my expert friend, Aline Templeton, hugely acclaimed author of the Marjory Fleming series of crime novels set in rural Galloway, that beautiful and peaceful  - hooray! - South-West corner of Scotland.

Cradle to Grave, Aline's latest, is published in paperback today, so I asked her to come and talk about the intricacies of creating one of the Holy Grails of publishing: the successful series character. Easily persuaded by the promise of a modest glass of wine, she agreed.

NM: You'd written several stand-alone novels before you started the Marjory Fleming books.
What was the thinking behind deciding to create a series character? Was it your publisher, your agent or you who had the initial idea to create a series?
AT: I'd enjoyed writing stand-alones, and rather fought shy of doing a series, which would tie me down in terms of setting and character. With my stand-alones, the plot had tended to dictate the setting: for instance, Shades of Death, set in limestone caves, had to be in either Somerset or Derbyshire, and I knew Derbyshire better.  So in some ways that's easier, and plots can be more straightforward too, in that you don't have to do what I always think of as the Fair Isle knitting bit – interweaving the main action with the continuing story of the series characters' lives.
So I think I'd have to say it was the character  that came into my mind and settled who produced the initial idea!  I could see her clearly: she was tall, fit-looking and strong-minded and  she wasn't the standard dysfunctional loner with lovers, an attitude problem, and an intimate relationship with the bottle. She was like the policewomen I had known when I was a JP: a working mother, married, with the problems of elderly parents and teenage kids on top of  the crazy demands of the job. I knew at once that she wasn't a one-book character, so I had to take the plunge .My agent and my editor were both enthusiastic, so the DI Marjory Fleming series began.
NM: If you were advising an unpublished author, would you advise starting with stand alones, or is it fine to launch straight into a series?  
There's no doubt that readers – and so publishers - like series.  It lets them feel they know the characters and there's a sort of 'soap opera' hook to draw them in.  If you're starting out, there's no reason at all why you shouldn't start with a series, if you feel will have enough compatible ideas to keep it fresh.  But lots of writers have produced a stand-alone which has such a strong central character that it becomes obvious there's more to say and some of these have turned into very successful series.
NM: When I interviewed Ian Rankin, he said it took a couple of Rebus novels before he felt he knew the character. How strongly did you feel you knew M during the first one? She's a family woman and very much has "stuff" going on in her life - was all this planned? Also, I notice that in each of the books, she has a particular "issue" to deal with - is this a specific technique you recommend for a series character?
AT: I felt I knew a lot about Marjory's character from the start; I lived with her for a long time before the detail of the series fell into place.  What I felt I didn't know in the first books was about her past.  It was  rather like making a friend, but only later discovering what had happened to them before you knew them – and being quite surprised!  She was quite a new DI in the first book, and I do feel that the scars of experience  have changed her, that she's learned a lot – sadder and wiser, perhaps -  and I feel that happened organically rather than being planned.  But quite often in a book I will lay down a plot line which I pick up in a later one, particularly in The Darkness and the Deep and Lying Dead.  
I had certainly planned that her family would be a very important thread, and yes, some of what has happened to them I planned from the start.  But again, as characters develop, their personalities dictate events.
The 'issue' themes came about, really, by accident.  The first book, Cold in the Earth, had a background of the Foot and Mouth epidemic, and when I decided to set my second book in a fishing village where the fishing has gone (close to my heart, since I come from one like that) I began to think in general about the problems of rural life.  Our urban society tends to have an overly romantic view of country living as propagated in the glossy mags – gingham curtains blowing in the breeze, a row of preserves on the shelf, rosy-cheeked children frolicking under the blossom in the orchard - and it appealed to me that I could highlight problems like savage unemployment and deprivation, local families being priced out of villages, and small shops having their existence threatened by a supermarket.  The 'issue' has been a background rather than the lynchpin of the plot, but I do feel it gives an additional dimension to the book.  Of course you can achieve that in all sorts of other ways, but in a series I think you need a very solid, believable background if readers are going to want to come back to find out more. Ideally, it should be like returning to somewhere they visit regularly; when readers open a new book, they should be saying, 'Right! Now, what's everyone been doing since I went away?'
NM: I'm always telling writers to think of readers. By this, I don't mean I pander to them, but I'm always asking myself "Does the reader want or need to read that sentence?" But Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris both said on this blog that they are not really thinking of their readers. Stephen King is on my side and talks about writing his second draft very much with the reader in mind. Where do you stand on this? 
AT: What I love about crime writing is that I write with the readers at my shoulder, all the time. We're in this together - but I'm not writing to please; I'm doing my level best to wrongfoot them, and it's a constant challenge.  I play fair with clues to the puzzle, in that they will be there, but I'm going to do my level best to make sure readers don't spot them – ah, the joy of red herrings!  I've been known to write and rewrite a scene half-a-dozen times until I'm sure that the reader at my shoulder will miss it.  My editor said that reaching the denouement of Lying Dead, she had exclaimed aloud, 'But it can't be!' then looked back and saw the clues – that's what I'm aiming for. [NM: Perfect!]
 I do agree with you about cutting out extraneous material, though I don't really think about the reader at that point, more about tension and pace and good style – quite technical stuff.  I can't bear flabby prose and setting to with a scalpel is another particular pleasure.  If I need to add in something later, it's a bad sign if I can just slot it in: it should be so taut that I have to do unpicking and reweaving before I can do it.
NM: There will be aspiring crime writers reading this. What do you believe publishers are looking for in a debut crime novel? Leaving aside things like the ability to write a great sentence, what do you see as the essential ingredients of a must-be-published debut crime novel?
AT: I'd have to say to aspiring writers that the trouble is, there isn't a recipe, alas.  You could have fantastic ingredients like a brilliantly worked-out plot, original characters, a fantastic setting, the most amazing first sentence  - but if you don't have that odd, intangible ability to make the reader want to turn the next page (ideally as fast as they can) there's no point.
Let's assume you do.  (Of course you do!).  After that, I think I'd say it's originality, freshness.  I can't begin to guess how many crime novels have been written, yet authors are still coming up with the idea that makes the publisher say, 'That's intriguing!'  Once they've nibbled at the bait, they have to be reeled in with compelling characters and a driving plot with pace and tension.  And the main thing?  They have to want to know what's going to happen.  [NM: Yes!] The best compliment I can get is when someone says to me, 'I was up reading your book till three in the morning.'
NM: Which of your books is your favourite? If someone hasn't read an Aline Templeton, which one would you like them to start with?
AT: That's the 'Which of you children do you like best?' question! [NM: hehehehehe] If you haven't read any in the series, Cold in the Earth introduces DI Fleming – 'Big Marge', to her detectives. The books are all self-contained novels so don't need to be read in sequence, though for the best effect The Darkness and the Deep and Lying Dead, should be read in that order. But if I'm forced to chose, I think the new one, Cradle to Grave, is my best yet. Like Marjory, I think I've learned as I went along and it has more psychological depth and drama  than any previous one. The ambiguous main character, Beth – a nanny accused, and controversially acquitted, of murdering her charge – was immensely satisfying to create – and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Marjory's dubious past!
And now for my "How Was It For You?" slot:
Was your route to publication paved with rejections? How long did it take and roughly how many rejections?
Oh yes!  I knew from the moment I could hold a pencil that I was an author, but for some reason publishers were very slow to understand this and had to have it explained to them over and over again for years before the penny dropped.  I couldn't begin to tell you how many, except that I've often said I should have kept them all to paper the downstairs loo instead of tearing them up and jumping on them.  Never give up, guys!
Do you have a memorable rejection letter?
Not as such, but I did learn to ignore completely the first sentence when they told me how fantastic it was and how much they loved it, and go straight to the paragraph that began, 'But ...'
What stopped you being published earlier?
My agent!  No, that's not quite fair.   I could have ignored the advice she gave me, but I didn't.

I had written quite a bit for newspapers and magazines and I was approached by an agent before my first book was finished.  It went to Collins who were keen on it, but wanted a lot of work on the first half, which in those days meant rewriting by hand, then retyping, with a carbon sheet  and  industrial quantities of Tip-Ex.  I was a bit reluctant, being well into my second book by then, and my agent's advice – the single worst piece of advice I've ever had – was to go on and finish that book and see about the other one after that.  In the interim, publishing had another of its periodic fits of recession, Collins sacked a third of its work force and weren't much interested in untried authors.  That set me back, and I was in my late thirties when I got my first book published - after I'd sacked my agent!
What do you wish you'd known earlier?
It took me a while to appreciate that you are enormously lucky if a professional takes the trouble to criticise your work.  It's always tempting to bristle, to say they don't know what they're talking about, but the chances are they do.  Even if I decide I can't accept it for the sake of  the story's integrity, I try to take it on board – not that it's easy.  It's a bit like that joke, 'How many authors does it take to change a light bulb?'  'Does it have to change?  I've worked so hard on it already…'
THANK YOU, ALINE! So much in there, so much. Thank you for being so generous with your time. Very inspirational, informative and entertaining.

I do heartily recommend Aline's books, whether you're an aspiring crime writer or a reader who likes a cracking, engaging, gripping read. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

INSIDE THE HEAD OF A SMALL PUBLISHER

My advice when you're submitting your manuscript to any publisher or agent is always to try to put yourself in their shoes. But what do those shoes feel like?

At one of my events the other day I recommended the audience to go and read this fascinating post by small publisher Lynn Michell, of the Linen Press. Her desire to find the right book and do the very best for it at every stage of the way is so clear. And she really shines a light on all the other things she has to do which mean that she can't always give you feedback or spend a long time rreading your work once she's decided that it's not right for her.

Go read. I think it's instructive and enlightening.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

DOES IT GET EASIER?

This was a question I was asked at the end of my three-hour What's Wrong With Your Manuscript? workshop this week in Edinburgh. I'm afraid my face said it all.

No, to be honest, I don't think "it" does get easier, if by "it" we mean writing a book that's good enough for readers to buy, a book we can be truly proud of. Some aspects get easier and some don't. We get better at it, I hope, and better at recognising the stages and the processes, better at seeing what's wrong with what we're doing. But putting it right is rarely easy and nor is writing it.

I find it hard, this business, and the fact that I can talk for hours about how to do it doesn't make it any less hard. If it was mechanical - and perhaps it is for some people, with some types of book - maybe it would become easier. But it isn't and so it doesn't. Each novel is crafted from a piece of stone that is no softer than the previous one. Each chisel is no sharper. There are no shortcuts to creation.

People who dismiss our novels as easy to write, or make some crass comments about them in reviews, have no idea how hard we try and how difficult good books are to write and how pleasing everyone is neither possible nor what we aim for. Maybe we make writing look easy. Maybe that's why so many people try it and why so many people say they'll write a novel "when I have time".

So, no, to my lovely, hard-working workshoppers this week: I'm sorry. I can't promise you that it gets easier. I can promise you, however, that the pleasures don't dim. And maybe that's the point: the pleasure is in achieving something difficult. The harder the climb, the further you can see and the greater the exhilaration.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

SEQUELS - THE SEQUEL

Last week I brought you the experiences of two writers who have written sequels and I promised to come back this week with my own technical advice to you.

First let's sort out the difference between sequels and series. In a way, a book which has a sequel is a story divided into more than one part. Note, however, that the first part needs to contain a complete story, too - it's just that there are aspects which can be carried into the next story. The reader must feel at the end of the first that this story is complete, that what was set up as the main conflict or goal has been sufficiently achieved. And the trick for the writer is to leave enough ends open that a sequel is possible, even desirable, but not necessary.

For example, my The Highwayman's Curse, which is the sequel to The Highwayman's Footsteps, ends with our two heroes galloping off into the sunrise with this adventure complete but with the distinct possibility of another one to come. (Actually, there isn't, but I hadn't decided that then.)

A series, on the other hand, can be one of two things:
  • A number of books about the same characters or the same setting or the same theme, but each stands fully on its own. Despite the implication of the word "series", books in a series like this can usually be read in any order, even though there will usually be some chronological threads. Crime novels featuring a particular detective are a series.
  • Or several (more than two or three, usually) books in a sequence - in other words, several sequels. The Harry Potter books, for example, can rightly be called a series. They would be read in order and the whole series is the complete story.
These may seem to be nit-picking distinctions but they are important for one main reason: publishers love series but are often wary of the proposed sequel or trilogy.

Why do they love series? Because when a series works it can sell in large numbers and make author and publisher very happy. Readers become comfortable, know what they're going to get, and the marketing gets easier as the series goes on because you are building on existing loyalty.

And why are they wary of a proposed sequel? Because if the first one sells in mediocre numbers, the sequel is pretty much doomed. Even more so with the third. I know of too many very unhappy authors whose third has been cancelled because the first two didn't sell. I am quite sure that if I'd proposed a third book for my highwayman sequence it would have been rejected, because although the first two were critically acclaimed in fab places and the first was short-listed for things, they didn't sell well enough. If I'd been contracted for a trilogy - as easily might have happened if I'd asked - I'd have faced the third contract being cancelled, which would have been horrible.

There are a few other disadvantages of sequels, from the author's point of view:
  • There are some tricky aspects to the actual writing, highlighted in last week's post.
  • A sequel is much less often short-listed for awards.
  • Most readers, on reading the sequel, will focus on saying whether they thought the first or second was better. Both those comments are very irritating.
So, what do publisher attitudes mean for you, the aspiring writer about to pitch a novel which you believe has sequel potential? Here's my advice:
  1. Make quite sure that your first book stands strongly on its own, so that a sequel is not a necessary part of the deal.
  2. Be very sure that you are not exaggerating in your own mind the sequel potential - many writers over-estimate the fascination of their idea. And do not exaggerate the potential in your covering letter.
  3. If you do believe there is sequel or series potential, mention this but don't ignore point one above.
  4. If you are specifically pitching a series, remember that a series requires big marketing to get it off the ground, so you need a publisher with those resources and skills. Make sure you're pitching to a publisher that has no competing series - publishers will happily commission single novels which are similar in style and theme to others on their list, because this strengthens the list, but they won't want two series that are too similar in target and content.
Inbali Iserles actually put it very well in her interview: "If a book is part of a series, e.g. a trilogy, my sense is that it’s probably worth mentioning this to publishers – to see what they think – but to be flexible. The key thing is that the book stands alone on its merits. Whatever happens, and for at least a few months (perhaps years), that lonely first book will have to survive without kith or kin in an unforgiving market-place."

Let me take some of your comments and questions from the previous post:

HelenO asked:
I've got a sequel already in outline, and I'm strongly tempted to work on that while the first ms is doing the rounds. But what if the first book doesn't sell? Would an agent prefer to see another standalone? (I have other ideas that I could develop.) I'm keen to work on the sequel - I've done the world-building, and now I want to take these characters further. But am I being blinded by my own enthusiasm here? Should I put the sequel idea to one side and work on something else until I know I can sell the first book?
My firm answer is: yes, put the sequel aside and work on something else for the moment. Wait for a response to the first before working on the sequel.

Then HelenO also said:
Plan your sequel by all means, but if a novel doesn't work as a standalone it may well be disadvantaged when it goes to publishers. [Spot on!]
Helen V said:
As a fantasy writer where trilogies are almost mandatory I've been struggling with the idea of how to present my novel for publication. It is capable of being published as a stand alone but I've a story line which follows on into the next novel and for my own satisfaction I have started to write it. Whether this is a good decision or not remains to be seen.
My answer: yes, I agree about fantasy lending itself very much to trilogies. If you have started to write a sequel, no problem, particularly as you are probably immersed in the world you've created, but it's good that your first one would stand alone if necessary. Emphasise that it does stand alone. Saying that you are already working on a possible sequel demonstrates commitment. (But I'd always recommend that writers were working on the next novel anyway, whether in sequence or stand-alone.)

Thomas Taylor said:
It's especially interesting for me as I begin to imagine a possible sequel, and wonder if I should be seeding the first book while I still can. I have a one book deal, but a 'set-up' that cries out for another story.
Me: Congrats on the deal! And yes, I'd say seed away, without committing to anything.

There's a theme to these answers: don't commit. Be flexible. No problem with looking ahead but do not pin your hopes on the possibility of a sequel.

The highly commercial series idea, though - if you have one of those, I may have to kill you.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

DOES YOUR MS TICK THESE BOXES?

Of course, writing novels isn't about (and mustn't feel like) ticking boxes. However, when it comes to teaching writers how to write better or how to write a novel that a publisher will want, it's less helpful to say, "Write better, engagingly, tightly, originally, dynamically, wonderfully," and more helpful to say, "OK, now that you've got your idea/outline/first draft, please make sure it has these ingredients." Or even better, "Collect your ingredients before you start cooking the book."

So I have some lists for you. Several. I should perhaps make a list of them.

I have my own Checklist for Publication in Write to be Published. Mine is quite general because I'd spent the previous almost-200 pages explaining the details of what publishers want! But here's my list:

What publishers want:
  • A great idea, a hook which can be powerfully pitched in one or two sentences.
  • A voice which engages the reader, is consistent and either feels wonderfully fresh, or is perfect for its genre.
  • A book they can’t put down – “unputdownable” is a cliché but we all want it.
  • Something which booksellers will find easy to sell, because of the clear hook or because it sits nicely in its pigeon-hole.
  • A manuscript which displays great competence in all the elements that I've been talking about (ie in the previous almost-200 pages...).
  • A manuscript which is not too far from being ready for publication.
  • A writer who seems professional, sane and clued-up.
  • A fascinating personal story or platform is an advantage but will not over-ride the quality of the book. Unless you are a plastic celebrity, in which case all bets are off.

Interestingly, my one-to-one sessions for the York Festival of Writing this coming weekend ask me to pose three questions:
  • Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?
  • Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent's interest?
  • Does your opening chapter compel further reading?
(And then I have to give recommendations for the way forward.)

Bear in mind that those questions are to be answered only from reading the pitch and Chapter One. When considering your whole manuscript, I'd add two more questions:
  • What is at stake for the character and why should we care about it?
  • How are the goals and obstacles structured so as to keep as reading - ideally reading faster and faster?
Then there's this wonderful checklist of Seventeen Questions to Ask Your Novel, from Emma Darwin. 

Bearing all this in mind, during my What's Wrong With Your Manuscript? workshop in Edinburgh TODAY (hooray!), I'll be picking out aspects of both Emma's and my lists and focusing on them in detail, under the overall structure of those three York Festival questions and my extra two.

Lots of ingredients go to make up those questions, though - sub-questions. The ones I will focus on in the workshop are those which, in my experience, almost all unpublished writers forget. They are crucial because if they are not tackled properly you may have a story but you will not have one worth reading. Or publishing.

Since only twelve people in the whole world can come to my workshop tomorrow, I thought I'd give the rest of you a potted version of what we'll look at. Free! (But you don't get chocolate, wine, food and a glorious goody bag. Sorry.)

THE CORE QUESTIONS
The questions all really boil down to three: a) what are the goals and obstacles? b) why should we care whether the character achieves / overcomes them. I blogged about this the other day and I'll be using the points made there, as well as referring to some of the questions on Emma Darwin's list. And c) how good are you at choosing the right words? In other words, how good a writer are you?

Perhaps the most common reason for rejection, apart from an inability to write, is this: the writer has over-estimated completely how much the reader cares about this story. You must make the reader care because otherwise that reader will go and do one of the very many other much more fun things than reading your story.

And if that reader is an agent...

So, here's my list of topics the workshop will cover and which you can use to examine your own MS:

THE STORY
Concept
  • Elevator pitch design - no wild, vague statements; no exaggerated description of brilliance; states core conflict
  • Defines genre
  • Has fellow pigeons
Goals and obstacles
  • What is the big conflict or problem posed at the start? Is it strong enough?
  • Do we care about the MC - why?
  • What does MC need? How difficult will it be to achieve? What will happen if she fails?
  • What obstacles get in the way?
  • How are obstacles structured to create increasing tension?
Story shape - does it work to create tension?
Character
  • Likeability.
  • Development.
  • Consistency and believability.
  • Point of view - whose? 
  • Appropriate age for reader.
Pace - how to control
POV
  • Who is telling the story and why? Where and when are they telling it?
  • Whose characters' minds are they in?
Credibility
  • Of central premise
  • Of characters' motivation
  • Voice slippages
Voice
  • (What is it?)
  • Whose voice?
  • Mixed or single?
  • Defined and controlled?

LANGUAGE - this will form the second half of the evening and we will look at these common faults:
  • Telling too much instead of showing more.
  • "Over-writing" - trying too hard to sound like a writer. This involves:
  1. Pointless similes.
  2. Too many adjectives, especially in the adj+noun pattern.
  3. Ditto with adverbs.
  4. Overdoing the action / loud verbs - too much skipping, hurling, striding, retorting, speed-walking.
  • Tautology.
  • Not thinking about precise meaning and therefore being either unclear or not saying what you intend.
  • Wrong order of action within a sentence.
  • Unnecessary details which disrupt flow, meaning and action.
  • Clunky sentences which need re-ordering.
  • Clichés.
  • Poor dialogue - and dialogue tags.
  • Monotonous sentence structure.
Right, that's enough checklists now and if "what's wrong with your manuscript" isn't somewhere on one of those lists, I'll eat my hat. Or something.

Think of us all workshopping hard this evening, won't you? I'll raise a glass to you.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS - AND FRIENDS

Excuse me while I digress from the business of writing and publishing. I want and need to thank some people who have recently been extraordinarily kind, when they didn't need to be, people who have gone the extra mile for me, even though some of them have never met me and others have only met me once.

First, though, let me take a moment to spit vitriol at the nasty little creep who has so little of value in his head that he had to waste the cells he has in hacking into my author website. Some of you know that on Monday and Tuesday this week I had no website. For a while it consisted of a violent red and black screen, a nasty face sneering at me, flashing red words and Chinese script. Then it was a white screen with an error message. For some time I feared that I'd never get it back, that my nicolamorgan.co.uk / com names would never be mine again, that I'd have to re-write everything from scratch, losing my email addresses for ever, and losing business while people couldn't contact me through the site. It was a little bit like being burgled. No, I know it wasn't really as bad as that, but I did feel invaded. It felt personal. And to say that I didn't have time to deal with the bastard and the results of his malicious "work" is an understatement.

Enter the kindness of strangers. People who I've never met stepped in with advice on Twitter and Facebook. Some of it was reassuring and technical, others just sympathetic. A Facebook writer friend - who I've also never met - Dan Blythe, posted a request to people to buy Wasted in solidarity with me. That was such a kind and unexpected reaction that I felt a bit emotional. There was I, in internet meltdown after invasion by a spiteful bastard, and someone I've never met was bothering to care enough to tell people to buy my books.

Then there were two Twitter friends - again, never met them, never spoken to them before - Marshall Buckley (@marshallbuckley) and Andrew Laws (@Andrew_Culture). Both are webby experts but are also working on novels. They gave me their phone numbers, asking me to call. I did. They reassured me and gave me lots of practical advice. They both spent time rootling around trying to find out what was going on. (Yes, I'd contacted the host company and no, they hadn't replied - turns out that this is because I reported it under the category "Abuse" instead of "Technical". Silly me. Well, it bloody felt like abuse.) Then, the host company half got its act together but I still needed Andrew to go and get the site back up and running. He did it and didn't even make me feel stupid. He was still doing it late on Tuesday evening.

So, my first two thanks to friends I've never met but am proud to call friends go to Marshall Buckley and Andrew Laws. Do follow them on Twitter and be nice to them. I wish them success in their writing.

On a completely different subject, I want to thank Mike Jarman. He's also a Twitter friend but I have met him once. He and his wife own Botham's of Whitby, fabulous bakers, and last year they came to the Gardening Scotland show with their products. I swept by for a few minutes in my pink wellies - now sadly departed to welly heaven - and ice-blue raincoat, and frightened away the other customers. Since then, I've enjoyed a number of delicious Botham's products. Mmmmm.

But, what am I thanking him for? Well, I asked if he'd like to put a little smidgen of something in the goody bags for my workshops. I was thinking along the lines of little samples, but the other day two large boxes arrived, containing a whole fabulous packet of Shah biscuits for every participant. Along with my favourite plum bread (for me) and some stem ginger brack (for someone as yet unspecified). So, a huge thanks for that generosity. Do follow Mike on Twitter - @mikejarman - his tweets are renowned for their entertainment value. Especially when his thumbs get confused. And his cakes are ace.

And then there was Joanne Harris - again, a Twitter friend who I've met once - who took the trouble to read Write to be Published and wrote a fabulous review, which must have taken ages. Incredible generosity.

I also discovered how good my friends - online and offline - are when, against all expectations, I won the Coventry "Read it or Else" award. And this is where I thank many of you for going to the trouble of voting. I felt very overwhelmed by that, very. I know I had a lot of support from some Coventry pupils - one of whom repeatedly put comments on the site telling people to vote, and since I've never been to Coventry or had any contact with the schools there, that was overwhelming, too. But I also know that my friends - and I count my blog readers among them - went out of their way to help.

So, thanks to them and to you for being lovely. The world is sometimes a pretty good place full of pretty good people and I needed to be reminded of that. All I can do for you in return is keep on blogging and wishing you all the success you deserve.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

SEQUELS - PITFALLS, PLEASURES AND TIPS

Settle down: it's a long one. Actually, it's so long that I'm going to divide it into two parts and give you the sequel later. Bit like the novel you're writing?

So often I hear aspiring writers saying that they are writing a novel "with potential for a sequel". But is a sequel what you should be thinking about at this stage? Shouldn't you be focusing on this novel first, and perhaps as a stand-alone? Sequels are not easy. But writing the first is different if you are planning a sequel. Will a publisher be more or less likely to take you on if you mention the S word? Publishers do like books that work in series, IF they are successful, but if the first book doesn't do as well as expected, the sequel is going to be very hard to sell. Should you hedge your bets and write the first as a stand-alone?

I have some knowledge of this, partly because of my experience with The Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse, and partly because I know something of the thinking of agents and publishers when faced by the aspiring author with not one baby, but two. I'll bring you my own answers in Part Two, next week. Meanwhile, I bring you the thoughts and experiences of two writers who have just had their sequels published - Inbali Iserles and Keren David. I interviewed them both and their answers are below.

Inbali works part-time as a lawyer in London and is the author of The Tygrine Cat books and the Bloodstone Bird. The first TC book won the Calderdale Children’s Book of the Year Award 2008 and was short-listed for the Stockton Children’s Book of the Year, as well as garmering many avid fans. The sequel, Tygrine Cat On The Run, has this stunning video to give you a flavour - it was designed by a 16-year-old fan from the US.


The Tygrine Cat follows the adventures of a young cat called Mati, who seeks acceptance from a community of street cats at Cressida Lock. But Mati is no ordinary cat, and Mithos, the mysterious assassin on his trail, knows it. To defeat his enemies, Mati must learn to harness an ancient feline power – a power so deadly that it threatens to destroy not only his friends but every cat on earth… In the sequel, a great menace is unleashed by Mati’s enemies, bound for Cressida Lock. The cats must flee the safety of their homes on a perilous journey to a faraway land.

Keren David had worked as a journalist ever since she was a teenager, before starting to write teen fiction in 2008. Her first book When I was Joe was published in January 2010, followed by the sequel Almost True in September 2010. WIWJ won the North East Teenage Book Award, was Highly Commended for the Teenage Booktrust prize and has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It is on the shortlists for the Angus and Lancashire Book of the Year awards.  Both books tell the story of Ty, 14-year-old sole witness to a fatal stabbing who has to be taken into police protection and given a new identity when his life is threatened to stop him testifying. Keren’s next book, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, is published in August 2011 and she is working on a third book about Ty.

Inbali and Keren have offered a signed copy of their sequels as a giveaway. I'll pick two comments from below, at random. So, comment!

NM: When you wrote book 1, did you know there'd be a Book 2, or was that going to depend on sales of Book 1. And, assuming you did plan there to be a book 2, how did that knowledge affect Bk 1, if at all?
INBALI: While I signed a two-book deal with my publishers, the second book was an unrelated stand-alone title, The Bloodstone Bird. Very soon after The Tygrine Cat came out, my editor asked me if I had considered ideas for a sequel. As a matter of fact, I had…

The truth is that I had always seen The Tygrine Cat as a series and had developed a story arc starting from the first book and leading to a dramatic climax. I hadn’t shared these thoughts with my publishers as my agent felt it was important for the first Tygrine Cat book to be assessed on its merits. Who knew if it would sell in sufficient numbers to make a sequel feasible? It needed to be strong enough to stand alone.

KEREN: I started writing When I was Joe as part of a course of evening classes I took at City Univesity in Writing for Children. My friend Anna was also taking the course. She read the first draft of chapter two in which I mention that the main character Ty’s father had died in a motorcycle crash when Ty was two. Anna said I should keep Ty’s dad alive, so Ty can be reunited with him in a sequel. How I laughed...at that point I wasn’t certain I’d get to the end of chapter three. However I did resurrect Ty’s dad, and Anna had planted the idea of a sequel. This was the one and only way in which the possibility of a second book affected the first book.
When I had finished When I Was Joe and was querying agents, I had an idea of how a sequel would start and how the fourth chapter would end (literally two lines came into my head) So I started writing the sequel for my own amusement. Luckily when I found an agent, she liked the sequel and so did Frances Lincoln, the publishers who eventually offered me a two book deal. Once both books had been published  -  the second book is called Almost True - and were doing well we started talking about a third book in the series, which I am writing now for publication in 2012.
NM: With my highwayman sequel, the setting is completely different from the setting for Bk 1 - this made it easier for me to make them feel like two different books, with all new characters except the main two. Did you have something very different for your sequel?  (I've got a copy on order.)
INBALI: The Tygrine Cat On the Run picks up not long after The Tygrine Cat leaves the story. We meet the same cast of characters much where we left them but it is immediately clear that all is not well at Cressida Lock. The Tygrine Cat introduced the concept of Fiåney, the feline spirit realm – the land from which a cat’s sixth sense is drawn – and this world is explored in The Tygrine Cat On the Run. A phantom is unleashed from Fiåney, against the ancient laws of nature. A creature bent on the destruction of the Tygrine cat. Sensing danger, Mati urges the kin to leave.

The Tygrine Cat On the Run takes the shape of a journey on different levels. In the physical realm, Mati and his friends are on the move, facing great hazards through a city and fields at night as all the time the untold menace draws closer. There is also a journey of the soul for the lonely young cat, as Mati disappears into Fiåney, where he encounters three gates. The first gate takes him to a place of chaos and flame; the second to the ancient land of his ancestors; the last to the world of memory, where his fallen friends remain. Can cruelty and despair crush Mati’s will – or is there an even greater power at work?

KEREN:  Almost True follows on just a few weeks after the end of When I Was Joe. Almost immediately there’s a change of setting, as Ty has to flee from a place that’s become very dangerous. Because I knew that this book would involve Ty learning about his father, and also because there was something about his mother which I hadn’t revealed in When I Was Joe it was clear to me that the book would be as much about his hidden past as the dangers of the present. There are strong new characters, three generations of new male relatives for Ty, but I had to reunite him with some important people from the first book - I don’t think my readers would have forgiven me if he hadn’t met Claire again.

The third book will be different again because the narrator changes. There needs to be a balance between taking the story forward and adding depth, filling gaps in what’s gone before.
NM: For the sequel, how did you manage the business of "back story"?  Does a reader need to read Bk 1 first and how did you handle the problem that some readers would and some readers wouldn't have read the first one? Tricks and tips?
INBALI: This was a real challenge. I strongly believed that each book should be capable of being read as a complete novel, without reference to the other book – although much would be gained by reading them in order. Some sequels leap in without any effort to explain the back story. That can be disorientating to readers who have not read the first book for some time, let alone those who haven’t read it at all. Yet back story is tedious for readers who are familiar with the context and can slow down the pace of a book.
While the prologue to The Tygrine Cat On the Run dives straight into the action, there is a degree of scene setting in the first chapter. There after, important characters or concepts are briefly described, often in the context of the action. I used what I hoped was a light touch so that readers would scarcely notice these affirmations, but that they would be useful signposts. For example, in this sequence from the sequel, Mati is met by an old friend, the spirit Bayo. It is Bayo’s first appearance in this book:
Mati’s ears flicked forward. The pain in his paws waned, and his body shuddered with relief. He remembered Bayo. A friend, he recalled – a good spirit: someone he could trust.
KEREN:  I found it surprisingly easy to run through the back story of When I was Joe at the beginning of Almost True. I didn’t want to do that three page info-dump in Chapter 2 that you find so often in series, so I tried to give broad-brush outline at the beginning, and then more detail as it became necessary. I hope it works as a stand-alone, although sometimes I think I’d like to stick a big label on the front of Almost True saying ‘YOU’LL ENJOY THIS MORE IF YOU READ THE FIRST BOOK FIRST’
Writing the third book, there’s even more back story to weave in. I’m trying to give the reader just what they need to understand what’s happening right away - as you do with backstory in any book.
NM: When you were writing Book 2, were there some things in Bk 1 that restricted you? Things you wished you'd done differently?
INBALI: It’s more a case that I would have liked to have set up a couple of sequences in the first book, hinted at the “three gates”, for instance (only one of the gates is expressly mentioned in the first book: the Harakar). Long-lead set up is very useful when it comes to avoiding the soap opera scenario of introducing a bit character in Act I who takes a leading role in Act II. Nice for the reader to look back and suddenly “get it”, not having seen “it” coming!
Hopefully I avoided the soap opera scenario in the sequel by embedding various concepts in the first book. This wasn’t something that I discussed with my publishers at the time, it was more a feature of bringing the world of the story to life. I think much of that was down to the fact that I had the whole story (i.e. beyond the first book) worked out in my mind in advance, and had already done most of the hard work in terms of developing that world and the laws of Fiåney. So, for instance, there are hints in the first book that the moon is powerful, that it has some role to play in the world of cats. Only in the second book does that role become clear…
KEREN: Not really, Almost True grew out of  When I Was Joe and book three will grow from them both. What’s fun is finding a little detail in book one and thinking, ‘I can build that into something bigger.’ For example in Almost True, Archie’s dad isn’t there when the family meet for Christmas. He’s only not there because I forgot about him when I was writing that chapter, and no one actually mentions that he’s not there, but now for book three, I can think up all sorts of reasons for his absence.
NM: Pitching a novel with a possible sequel is tricky - a publisher might not want to take the risk. What is your advice to unpublished writers in this position? (Ignore if you can't answer this but I thought you might have an insight.)
INBALI: I didn’t pitch The Tygrine Cat with a sequel because at the time my agent was concerned that the market was saturated by fantasy series (it was during the Lord of the Rings film hype). It’s hard to know how my publishers would have responded had we gone in with two Tygrine Cat books. They were happy to offer a two-book deal for The Tygrine Cat and The Bloodstone Bird.
If a book is part of a series, e.g. a trilogy, my sense is that it’s probably worth mentioning this to publishers – to see what they think – but to be flexible. The key thing is that the book stands alone on its merits. Whatever happens, and for at least a few months (perhaps years), that lonely first book will have to survive without kith or kin in an unforgiving market-place.
KEREN: I didn’t mention the sequel when I was pitching to agents, partly because I was just writing it for my own amusement and I didn’t know if it would grow into a book. When three agents wanted to represent me, I pulled out the chapters I’d written so far. It was part of our discussion - I wanted to know if they liked the idea of a sequel, were keen to read it, had good comments about it. One said she’d leave reading it until later in the process, the other two read it and came back with feedback right away.
The agent that I went with, Jenny Savill, didn’t pitch Almost True to publishers at first, but mentioned it when editors were interested in When I Was Joe. If I’d had a strong feeling that this had to be a trilogy, I might have been upset if they weren’t prepared to commit to all three books, but actually I didn’t have that feeling and I’m glad we waited to find out if there was likely to be a demand - I wouldn’t want to trudge on with a series that hadn’t proved itself in the marketplace.
NM: Were there any other difficulties about doing a sequel / any other tricks or tips?
INBALI: If a sequel (or further books) is on the cards, it’s wise – very wise indeed – to map out the story arc over the full series. Careful preparation will help to avoid a lot of frustration later. Fantasy writers are perhaps more likely than others to do this in any event, given the need to explore and identify the parameters of the alternative world, it’s history, mythology and so on. I think that’s what saved me!

Personally, I found writing a sequel to be a walk in the park after the trials of the first book. It was with enormous excitement that I re-entered the world of cats, and without all the hair-pulling-other-world-development that I’d already addressed for The Tygrine Cat (and then again, in a very different setting, for The Bloodstone Bird). Writing the second Tygrine Cat book was all about story and character, action and pace. I loved every minute of it!
KEREN: I loved writing Almost True. I knew Ty so well as a narrator, that his voice and reactions were easy for me. It was exciting to be able to put him into different situations, find out more about his past. It was a richer, more fulfilling experience because it built on the first book, and I felt I was taking more risks.
The publishers decided to print the first chapter of Almost True at the end of When I Was Joe, and although I think that was a great idea to hook readers into buying the next book, I wonder if, for some readers, it actually detracts from the end of When I Was Joe, and makes it feel less complete than it is. I’m very happy with the narrative arc of When I Was Joe - as the title suggests it’s about the finite period of one false identity; the book ends as the identity ends, with the main character finally owning who he is and what he’s done. However, some reviewers have felt the ending is too abrupt and unfinished - I wonder if that’s because they immediately get a taster of what’s coming next. One American librarian told me she’d loved When I Was Joe, but she wouldn’t read Almost True ‘because I don’t want that boy to suffer any more.’ I took it as a compliment that she cared so much!
I wanted to end Almost True with a leap into the future - two years or so on - but my editor ruled that out, to leave the door open for further books.
I have heard that a sequel gets less attention than a stand-alone or the first in a series. It’s harder to get reviews unless someone has read and loved the first book, and I imagine it’s less likely to be listed for awards. I love Almost True better than When I Was Joe, and sometimes I feel I want to push it at people. Meet Joe’s little brother! He deserves attention too!
KEREN added (because I asked!):
My next book is called Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, it’s out in August 2011 and it’s about  a 16 year old girl who wins £8 million. My first draft ending (which I still like a lot) jumps forward seven years, so you know exactly what happens to everyone...but that ruled out any chance of a sequel, so my editor asked me to change it. So I did, and I planted something which would be useful if we decide that a sequel would be a good idea, and now I feel quite positive about the possibility of writing a sequel one day...perhaps...maybe...
Lots of insights and food for thought there - but I recommend that you don't go making any decisions about your possible sequels until you've read my sequel next week... Thanks to both Keren and Inbali for giving up their time.

Monday, 14 March 2011

THE PERFECT CRIME

For some completely unfathomable reason, Scottish writers seem to excel at crime. I mean writing it, of course. We have Ian Rankin, Lin Anderson, Stuart McBride, Aline Templeton, Val McDermid, Alanna Knight, Alex Gray, Quentin Jardine, Kate Atkinson, Catriona Macpherson, Paul Johnston - and I KNOW I'll have forgotten someone, which is a damned stupid thing to do to a crime writer. After all, wouldn't they be able to commit the perfect, undetectable murder?

Would you like to join the ranks of crime writers, whether you're Scottish or not? Would you like a successful crime writer to help you with your own manuscript and teach you the tricks of her trade? If so, look no further than the new offer from Lin Anderson: tuition and MS appraisal. She has written seven  books in the highly successful Dr Rhona MacLeod forensic series, runs Masterclasses in all aspects of novel writing and in particular crime writing, and is wonderfully placed to help you.

For details, visit her new, dedicated website: How To Write Crime.

As Lin says, "Crime is difficult to write. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s the easy option. And don’t let them tell you a crime novel is plot driven. It’s not. Any story is a character in action and crime stories are no different. A crime novel is not primarily about the crime, but about the character who solves the crime. That’s why crime books become long running and popular series and often get made for television. Readers or viewers want to be with the great characters that inhabit crime novels. So they keep coming back for more."

Note this in particular: "Any story is a character in action..."

She also talks about how to create a series - the ideal for a publisher in this genre, as the readership grows and grows. In fact, I have another successful Scottish crime writer, Aline Templeton, coming here on March 30th to talk about creating the series character.

Lin emphasises that crime is not just one type of book. It's a "'broad church' with many different sub-genres. ... crime thrillers (like the Rhona MacLeod books), procedural crime, historical crime, noir, crime comedy, futuristic crime, cosy crime, literary crime."


If you want help with your own crime novel, do contact Lin to see what she can do for you. and whatever you do, don't miss her forthcoming new title, The Reborn.

Here's the description: When the body of a pregnant teenager is found in a Hall of Mirrors with the full-term foetus surgically removed, forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod is called in to assist the police. Suspicion falls on Jeff Coulter, a psychotic inmate at a nearby hospital whose hobby is making Reborns - chillingly realistic baby dolls intended for bereaved parents or those unable to conceive. But how could he have orchestrated the murder from a secure mental facility?

The investigation leads to a group of teenage girls who seem to have all got pregnant at the same time. Then a Reborn doll is discovered near the crime scene and a second girl from the group is found dead."


Nasty. Very. But in a good way.

Friday, 11 March 2011

FEET WITH A THOUSAND FOLLOWERS - RESULTS

I have pleasure in announcing the winners of my Feet With a Thousand Followers competition. There were lots of entries - about fifty in total - and the standard was very varied, with lots of entries at the top end deserving commendation, even though I won't be able to mention them all. Choosing the winners was not an easy task. I know I said I was going to give the task of judging to someone else but in the end I had to do it myself because I didn't think it was fair to ask someone to give up so much time.

One of the strange things about your entries was that pretty unanimously you thought the shoes were YELLOW. You foolish people without taste. They are lime green, as anyone who has seen them in real life knows. However, I did not hold this against you.

Before I announce the winners, let me tell you some of the things which stopped some of you being chosen as winners: well, one, actually - over-writing. Too often a perfectly good, even excellent, description was wrecked by being over-egged. Sometimes your next phrase said the same thing in a different way but a way that added nothing; or you introduced an element of cliché; or you failed to think carefully about your meaning. So, you became victims of your desire to impress, instead of just touching the reader in a clever or powerful way. One writer on the shortlist, for example, lost a place amongst the prize-winners because of one piece of weak, clichéd description in an otherwise good piece.

Oh, and "up to 150 words" doesn't mean "more than 200".

Of course, everyone's opinion of a piece will be different, but I was looking for tight writing, an original slant, clarity of sentence structure, and something that stood out as being written by a skilled writer in control of language.

Here was my shortlist, in random order: Sam Tonge, Sarah Fraser, Patsy Collins, Keith Havers, Sally Jenkins, Jennifer de Groot, Juliet Boyd, Rin Simpson, Betty Taylor, Helen Lyttle, Frances Hayes and Jo Carroll. Well done to all!

The winner is .... Helen Lyttle. Congratulations! This made me smile, and I'm sure you can see why, but it's fair to say that - even leaving aside the flattery... - this is tight writing, original, and has a nice little twist. It's perfect flash.
How will you know me?  I'm quite a looker, so I'm told.  I can seem crabbit in a certain light, especially if I haven't had enough chocolate.  You're right, that could describe most women at the Book Festival apart from A S Byatt.  Tell you what, I'll wear my favourite shoes.  They're puce suede with cute little bows on.  Yes, it might look odd if you stare at women's feet but that can't be helped.  We will go to the Yurt and there we will exchange secrets for Mother Russia.  Do the swans still swim on the Volgograd?  No dear, it was spy talk.  Yes, they do serve alcohol in the Yurt.  What do you mean, am I married?  I'm beginning to think you've misunderstood my coded message in the Literary Review lonely hearts column.  You're looking for a baboushka of quite another kind.  (by Helen Lyttle)
In second place is Patsy Collins - well done, Patsy! Patsy's story is called "Walk a Mile", and one of the reasons I liked it was that although many of you took the theme of disability or old age, this one managed to retain excitement and lack of regret, which appealed to me. I think I'd have omitted "I wouldn't know", as it isn't actually necessary. But I liked the exuberance and the message and the sense of adventure in this person who can't have the types of adventures mentioned. It's not startling or particularly unusual but it feels right and strong.
Walk a mile in someone's shoes before you know them. That's what 
'they' say. Maybe they're right; I wouldn't know.

I'd like to wear ballet pumps. Stand on the points of my toes, even if it gave me calluses. Or don flippers to swim in warm pools, or cold, dangerous seas. Skis sound fun, rushing downhill so fast my eyes wouldn't focus on the whitescape flashing by. Maybe I'd break my leg. I wouldn't mind the cast, not if it came after trying the skis. I'd have put on the boots of those Chilean miners and paced hopefully in the darkness, if I could.
Look at my shoes. Pretty, lots of colours. If you want to know me, put them on. Don't walk a mile. Or even a step. I can't you see. To know me, sit in my shoes and think where you'll walk when you've taken them off. (by Patsy Collins)

To be honest, it was hard to choose between Patsy's and Helen's entries, partly because they are so different. Helen's came in on the very last day of the competition and just pipped Patsy to the post!

I was supposed to choose two Highly Commended runners-up, but I had to choose three because I couldn't separate them: Jennifer de Groot, Frances Hayes and Jo Carroll.

JO CARROLL wrote a lovely story showing a snapshot of a child's game. This was my favourite sentence, conveying beuatifully that this is an older person playing with a child: "She plops onto the floor and I prop against the chair to lower myself; together we tiptoe our fingers between the lines on the floor."
‘What if,’ she says, ‘we were teeny tiny and played bears on this carpet?’

‘You have the best ideas,’ I tell her.  ‘I wish I had ideas as good as yours.’
‘It’s because I’m six,’ she tells me.  I believe her.  ‘And because you’re sixty,’ she goes on, ‘you are the best joiner-in.’
She plops onto the floor and I prop against the chair to lower myself; together we tiptoe our fingers between the lines on the floor.
‘We have to pretend shoes,’ she says, as if I hadn’t thought of that.
‘Of course,’ I say.
‘Because the squares on this carpet,’ she says, ‘might lead us somewhere magic, where the path is made of bouncy cheese and the wind smells of chocolate and we can stay up all night and watch fireworks.’
‘What will we do in the morning?’ I ask.
‘Come home again, silly.  I’ve got school tomorrow.’ (by Jo Carroll)
JENNIFER DE GROOT wrote a poem. Now, I'm not an expert on poetry but I know most poetry entered in competitions is awful, and this definitely wasn't! I feel it's nice and rounded, with a beginning and end. It has a visual shape and it focuses on rhythm, rather than rhyme. It has the feeling of rightness and I could hear the shoes talking. So, it gets a Highly Ccommended from me.
With you
We have balanced on cobblestone streets
(And took the clinging pebbles in stride).
Waded through the muck of soggy leaves outside your uncle's house,
Trying to find your lost glasses.
(The boots he wore were attractive,
although your uncle isn't.)
Sunk into the plush carpet below every exhibit
at that wonderfully overcrowded art museum.
(We flirted with causing a mutiny
so we could stay and shoe watch.)
Accepted the remains of your lunch at the Vatican.
(The floors there didn't agree with us either.)
Danced with your niece,
(Who squashed our bows into oblivion;
we swear she has two left feet.)
And escaped with only a singe
When you left us on that steamy hotel vent.
(Pity your hotel stay wasn't that steamy.)
But we have reached our quota
And will not go another step
With you.
And finally, FRANCES HAYES' piece is very different in atmosphere. It ignores the shoes and focuses on the rug, imbuing it with a rich history and atmosphere.
Revenge

We brought back the Khan's body.

After dark we seized his body from under the noses of their sentries and carried him back to our camp.

We stood guard, none speaking, all night.

In the morning we wrapped him in his finest carpet and lashed his body to the back of his favourite pony. Two of us held her head; she did not like to bear a corpse.

When we returned there was great mourning in the city. After seven days the Wazir summoned us and gave us golden trinkets, a reward for our service.

The carpet was hung on a wall of the mosque.

Then the redcoat soldiers came. They took the carpet, exclaiming at its intricate work, its vibrant patterns.

The most vibrant colour was the brown stain of the Khan's blood.

We could not stop them taking it; we did not tell them about the blood.
Lovely - well done, all of you! Those five writers should send me their addresses  - n@nicolamorgan.co.uk -  and Helen needs to tell me which two of my books she'd like and Patsy needs to choose one. And tell me who to sign them to.

Thank you to everyone who entered. Please don't be disappointed if you weren't mentioned. The standard was generally really high and there's always an element of personal choice involved. The main thing is that you all wrote something and you were brave enough to send it out there. That's what writers have to do all the time and we just have to keep trying.

Back to your desks, all of you!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

GOALS AND OBSTACLES DRIVING YOUR PLOT

Every novel needs goals and obstacles. Or, rather, the main character does. So, I thought I'd offer you a practical lesson in this, in case it's something you haven't properly thought through. It may not just be the main character who needs goals and obstacles - there may be a secondary (and tertiary) character to focus on, too, though it's fair to say that minor characters don't have to have major goals and obstacles, or not obviously.

Ask yourself some questions:
  1. Is my MC's goal interesting and important enough for this genre and for the readers I aim to snare? For example, the MC being desperate to own a dog might be sufficient goal for a gentle book for six-year-olds but not for most other readers. (Though it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a good writer could create an exciting story out of this premise, by adding a great deal of extra interest.)
  2. Have I put sufficient obstacles in the way of this goal? Have I paced them well, increasing suspense? Do the obstacles hang together within the story, rather than being completely random-seeming?
  3. Do my readers care sufficiently about my MC that they are desperate for him or her to achieve the goal? The creation of a rounded character who we have strong feelings about is essential to keeping us reading. We must care and believe.
  4. Have I created enough complexity by having more than one goal, and perhaps by running a sub-plot which will conflict and even become part of the obstacles? Secondary characters can be very useful in this. 
Let's look at different types of obstacle. They can be:
  • caused by the MC's own mistake
  • caused by the MC's enemy
  • caused by a secondary character accidentally getting in the way
  • caused by external influences
  • caused completely by accident - don't overdo these or you'll end up with a mishmash of things and the reader will think you're just making it up as you go along. Which of course you are, but not in a good way. 
Obstacles should be:
  • interesting
  • relevant
  • congruous
  • sometimes seeming insurmountable
  • frustrating for the reader but not too frustrating - you don't want the reader screaming at you. Much.
  • generally increasing as the MC reaches the goal
  • overcome at just the right speed, generating the amount of suspense you want. Too quick and it's a let-down; too slow and it can become frustrating.
One of the problems I most often see in aspiring writers' work is lack of focus on the goal and the obstacles, lack of real effort to ensure that this goal is genuinely interesting and exciting for the reader. You must define and sharpen the goal and obstacles otherwise your story becomes a walk in the park instead of the gripping adventure it usually needs to be.

So, leap out at your MC and give him the shock of his life. But make the readers suspect you're going to leap out, so that the reader hangs around, fingers over his eyes, hardly daring to read on and yet being unable to stop.

Get the goals and obstacles right and you end up with a novel that is likely also to have suspense, pace and narrative thrust. And most novels benefit from an awful lot more narrative thrust than I see in most unpublished (and some published) work. In fact, it's one of the main things I'll be talking about in my workshops and talks over the next months - including at the York Festival of Writing.

Talking of workshops, there are no spaces left at my What's Wrong With your Manuscript evening in Edinburgh but there ARE spaces on the Secrets of Writing for Children and Teenagers one. If you come to that, you will get an invitation to the launch party!

Saturday, 5 March 2011

WHAT DID YOU DO FOR BOOKS THIS WEEK? SHOUT IT HERE!

Judging from the response on Twitter under #worldbooknight, and in private messages throughout this week, many people have joined my simple, positive contribution to WBN, which seeks to benefit all parts of the book chain: authors, publishers and agents, bookshops and readers, in a non-prescriptive, cost-effective, all-inclusive, generous way. Amazingly, I ended up being invited to talk about this on Newsnight - though that piece was so strangely edited that in fact you missed a) what they had assured me they'd leave in (my very positive feelings about WBN) and b) the thing they'd actually asked me to speak about - the complementary World Book Night idea. (Not "alternative, as people keep saying. I have never once suggested people shouldn't do both.)

Over the last few days, I've had a lot of well-known writers and many booksellers contacting me and agreeing that this simple idea of buying and giving a book would have been a wonderful format for WBN, a format which no one could have disagreed with. And a lot of them have expressed the hope that it might be an official part of WBN next year. That would be fantastic, but not in my hands.

But today I want simply to ask you: if you did go for my suggestion, what book did you buy and who did you give it to or who are you going to give it to? Please pass this question round and ask everyone to come here and say what they did.You may have some amusing or inspiring stories of what happened when you gave your book - tell us!

And, on behalf of everyone who wants the book trade to be healthy and who cares about authors and our ability to keep writing, thank you to all those who bought a book in the spirit of World Book Night 2011. Every little bit helps and what you did helped writers and readers, and everyone else in that chain. Thank you!