Wednesday 31 March 2010

To Plan or Not to Plan

Should we plan our novels? Or can the planning cramp out style? Steven King in his “On Writing” claims he does not plan, yet his stories are well structured and his plots technically perfect. It all seems so effortless to him. He claims that the stories come from the characters. That has to be right – there are no stories without characters after all – don’t all stories come from the tension between the characters?
I do like to plot and plan. I always have done – for any sort of writing. They are only the briefest of outlines, however. I start from that all important question “What is your novel about?” and then I build up into a story arc. Before this of course, I’ve worked on my characters and their motivations – even if only in my head as I’ve been driving, ironing or cooking. These seem to be my best thinking times.
As I write, I form a chapter by chapter plan. Each chapter also has its own plan. I do find that by having a plan to refer to I’m able to concentrate on the actual writing and not worry so much about the shape. Interestingly, I don’t write out a plan for this blog, but I do a hold a five point shape in my head as I write. I don’t think in my case sticking to a plan does cramp my writing. Plans can always be adjusted. The writing does still take me by surprise from time to time.
More complex story / plot theory then can be used as a tool for editing and is especially useful if a piece of fiction does not seem to be working. You can ask yourself – is the resolution satisfying, is there cause and effect, does the pace vary, is the three act structure solid?
In the end, it is up to each individual writer how they work. They must each find their own tools and rhythms. I for one like to plan – but not too rigidly.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Writing Synopses

Not easy. It has to be professional, tell the entire story, show us the characters and if possible capture something of the atmosphere of the piece. Usually in about 500 words.
I’m currently dealing with this big time: I’m marking an assignment from my Writing Novels for Young People module – the students have to produce a 500 word synopsis of a novel they have not written yet – and I am judging the Bridge House debut novel competition. As far as the competition is concerned, like all good editors, if I like the writing I’ll look at the synopsis. Except not many of them are synopses – they read more like blurbs. There are too many “will s/he ever find out?” endings. This is really a blurb. A blurb is not much use to an editor who is trying to make a decision about whether or not to publish your book. They need to know that you have a plot that works. Some people, who ought to know better – published writers, university lectures and columnists for writing magazines - have provided us with blurbs.
On the whole, my students have done better. But then it has been practised with them over the last few weeks. “Ridiculous,” they say. “Getting the whole of a novel into 500 words. Especially when I haven’t written it yet.” But they do it anyway and every one I have so far seen has at least been a reasonable attempt.
Now, here’s some news. Firstly, on the whole, those who have not written their novel yet do better with their synopsis. It becomes a planning tool. Often the synopsis of a completed novel is difficult because in fact the novel itself is not quite right. Secondly, you can be asked for less. I recently had to send the first five pages of a novel and one page containing the synopsis and my bio to an agent. You just have to be prepared for anything.
I’ve been to so many workshops about synopses and many people say many different things. As an editor now I know what I need to see: the novel in miniature.
Here are some recommendations. Start with that two line description that answers the question “What is your novel about?” Flesh out the plot a la McKee: inciting incident, complexities, crisis, climax, reversal and resolution. Define it according to the three act structure or Freytag’s pyramid also if that is useful. Make sure you explain each key character fully as they are introduced and that you carefully define their motivations. You might also comment on the style in which it will be written and the narrative techniques you might use. It is also useful to keep a chapter by chapter summary as you write the novel. This can be condensed into your overview synopsis when you have completed your novel and all of its edits. Needless to say your chapter by chapter synopsis will need to be edited as you edit your novel.
The bottom line has to be that your synopsis must truly be representative of your novel whilst giving the reader all the information they need to know.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Putting Together a Non-Fiction Proposal

It may seem sometimes that non-fiction writers have a better deal. They don’t start writing until a book has been accepted. But there is a vast difference between a proposal and an idea. You may be able to send the same idea to several publishers but you have to couch it in different terms to each one and it may be a different sort of book you write for each one anyway. The latter of course perhaps means that you can sell the same idea over and over. Even that, though is not all that straight forward. You daren’t try to sell to more than one publisher at a time … in case they all like it and you ended up having to write half a dozen books in one go… plus there can be some quite restrictive clauses slipped into contracts.
Yesterday, for instance, I was putting together a proposal for an edited book I want to produce. A chicken and egg situation exists. How can I convince the publisher to publish if I don’t have a list of respected writers waiting to write for me? How can I expect a lot of respected writers to write for me if I don’t have a publisher lined up?
Then there is also a lot more to be included. I have had to describe my book, who will buy it, why this particular publisher should publish me and my publishing record and I’ve had to supply a collection of one line endorsements about my writing.
Then I must put together a sample of my writing.
The next publisher will ask for something different, no doubt. It’s very similar to applying for jobs, though the competition may be even greater. So, even as with fiction submissions, you can end up writing quite a lot without any guarantee of a return.

Monday 22 March 2010

My Writing Time

I do love my “research” days. These are days when I can get on with my own writing relatively undisturbed. I achieved quite a lot last Friday:
I completed my edit / third proof read of a teaching guide. I finished a short story I hope will fit in with our Demons, Werewolves and Vampires collection, and I did considerable work on my poetry Young Adult novel. I feel comfortable with the latter again now. The even better news is that I now have next week free for the final proof read of Babel.
These are glorious days when I can really feel that I am getting somewhere with my writing. Working days are somewhat different. I feel I have to get my work for my employer out of the way first. Once that is done, I then find it difficult to concentrate on the writing – my mind is still buzzing with ideas and concerns. It really takes lot of effort – especially if I am passing on to a new subject or revisiting one I haven’t touched for a while.
Today I’ll be working on a proposal for a non-fiction book. Not such inspiring stuff in some ways, but you can still get absorbed. Eventually.
And some time soon I’ll have the proof back again of that book I mentioned in my previous blog. It’s all go, the writing life.

Friday 19 March 2010

Working with Editors

Yes, it’s all part of the job of being a writer. Getting the publishing contract does not mean it’s all over. In some ways it’s just a beginning. And you do have to be able to react to what an editor asks. Sometimes it can be painful. Yet in the end you are grateful. It’s another pair of eyes and the opinion of someone who can be a little more objective.
I’ve just posted off what I call an edit but what the design / copy edit team at the publishers call third proof. The edges have become rather blurred this time – but there’s been a history maternity leaves, illnesses and lost emails so we’re trying to catch up a little. Proofs were supposed to be done in December and the resource is actually due out about now. We’ve somehow missed a layer of editing.
The resource is for teachers’ and contains photocopiable sheets for the students. I had to take note in writing that each section has to fit on an A4 sheet. Yet the publisher needed the submission without formatting. I thought it prudent to submit both a visual text and one in publisher speak. This worked to some extent, though at design level there has been some misinterpretation of layout which has to be corrected – and some annoying reduction of font size and area of page covered. Being a partner in a publishing company and married to our designer I know it does not have to be like this. In fact, we’ve designed a couple of sample pages to show what can be done. This is really all level two editing.
I wrote the book from the heart and based on over twenty years’ experience in the classroom. A working method developed organically and from time to time I inserted certain elements into lesson plans. The editors loved these and asked them to be included in every lesson. At first, I felt dismayed. It made the lessons too regimented, too predictable. But I did as asked. Now that the text is back with me I realise that they were right. The content holds the excitement. The routine gives the security. Teachers are always pressed for time – they need to understand their instruction sheets swiftly. I’m happy with those changes now. So, it’s clear we do need our editors.
The resource is looking good apart from the small font in places and too much white space on a few student sheets. I’ve requested that they look at that. Now we wait. There will no doubt be more questions. Soon, though, a copy will arrive in the post. I’ll open it with trepidation, dreading finding the typo that no one has noticed. But it will feel good all the same. I even dreamt last night about how good it would feel and how good the book will look. Fingers crossed.

Monday 15 March 2010


So, I’m a writer but I’m also a publisher and I’m also a university lecturer. In fact, each role becomes part of the other. My lecturing has to have the priority, because I’m actually paid a living wage for that. Having said that, my writing is part of what I’m expected to do at the university. The publishing is almost a support activity: I get to practise editing and selecting stories and I get some insight into why some things are accepted and rejected. I also get to see how supersensitive we writers often seem. And I become more sensitive to the constraints under which editors work.
Let me give you a few examples:
We had a query last week about our competition. Were the entries judged yet? Hang on a minute – they only came in at the end of January and we’re working on several other books at the same time.
The last competition I judged, I actually got accused of not reading the entries. Sorry, folks, every single one was read - very carefully. You can’t win, can you? You’re either too fast or too slow ….
We had over 400 stories for our animal anthology and had to reject some really well written material … it just didn’t fit our criteria or was slightly less good than another on the same animal. We always email our authors individually and each one takes a couple of minutes. You can do the maths. And every time we have to stop to answer an email about why we haven’t replied yet …. That’s another email we’re not sending. Same story with our Open Anthology.
It was slightly different with 100 Stories for Haiti – Greg McQueen and his team did the selection and the first edits – we just stepped in part way through the process and actually got the book to print. But you’ve probably seen Greg’s blog on that topic so I’ll say no more.
Talking of which … we had a spot of bother with posting some of the copies – a particular machine at a particular post office decided to chew up some of the envelopes. One writer mentioned it politely to our administrator … only in passing …. My own arrived in a battered envelop, but the book was fine and since I’d received several of our publications in similar envelops, I knew it wasn’t us. Nevertheless, our wonderful administrator surveyed everyone and asked if their book had arrived okay. Most people were great about it. This book isn’t about your ego as a writer – it’s about what you can do as writer – write – as opposed to going through rubble or just putting you hand in your pocket. Everyone at Bridge House and on Greg’s team has worked for free on this book …. And put much more time in than the writing of one story – we know – two of us at Bridge House are in the book. Per head, the book has made more than £5.00 each already, so it’s been worth it. But anyway, we’ve revised our p & p policy – all Haiti books are going out in jiffy bags now…. 25p less to the Red Cross, but needs must.
The majority of our authors are great, though. When the Haiti book came out we were pleased to see some familiar names. It may be hard work being a publisher – frustrating when the printer is slow and the authors impatient – and the returns aren’t great yet. But it’s such fun getting a great book out there … and what else would I do with my spare time?

Wednesday 3 March 2010

A Day at Bangor University

It was like going home in some ways. I can’t believe I used to do this drive - and some – every week. This time, I drove into the setting sun and though I’ve been this way hundreds of times before, those mountains which come down to the sea never fail to take my breath away – especially now as Snowdon is still covered in snow.
I spent a pleasant evening and a productive working morning with a friend and then headed into town a little early for lunch in order to visit the Red Cross shop and show them the only hard copy in the public of 100 Stories for Haiti. They loved it and thought it would be a good idea to sell it in all shops. We should contact Head Office.
I the met Lyle Skains, the colleague from Bangor who had invited me, in the Blue Sky Café for lunch. The lunch was great. The food was bound to be. The café belongs to my cousin’s wife. The atmosphere is great, too. It is, after all, an example of what I call a Creative Café. There’s a whole list of activities on the wall. They’re all within keeping of what a Creative Café should do. And of course, Lyle’s company was great, too. We’re facing the same issues in our teaching and research and her experience of doing a Ph D sounds very familiar.
We struggled up the hill. I haven’t entirely lost my fitness. And I really did need to admire the view. Whatever made me think I could leave that view?
NIECI looks so different to what the old JP Hall used to look like. As we arrived at the top of the stairs I reminded myself that it was up here I had my Ph D viva almost three years ago. That long ago? In this space?
Eventually after a few more minutes’ catch-up with Lyle and Simon Holloway, another former colleague, I met the students. They were just like ours, really. I talked a lot. I always surprise myself about how much I know. I’m even more surprised when they start taking notes. Apparently what I’ve said sounds important.
We completed a creative writing exercise. This was one of my favourites – about finding the right voice for a piece. They seemed to really get into this. It was almost a shame to stop them.
Then – questions time. This brought me round to mainly talking about publishing and networking opportunities.
In then end, I really had to hurry, though – my car had parking on it until 4.05. I dashed down the hill, arriving a few minutes late. No problems – except my sat nav decided to take me out of town the pretty way. Up towards Bangor Mountain, along some frighteningly narrow country roads. Around a sudden corner to be faced with a heart-stopping view of Snowdon. Is my car trying to tell me something? Maybe it’s telling me I should come home more often.