Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Showing and Telling Storytelling, Andrew Wille at FoW15

The first thing to say is that I've had some complaints about the difficulty of reading my blog, due to the coloured background. I really like the background, so I've decided to experiment by putting my text in Bold. I'm just wondering whether this will also affect my writing style, just as I'm told that when I speak German, I sound more aggressive.

Andrew Wille's workshop on Showing and Telling was extremely helpful and I would highly recommend his own blog: www.wille.org, particularly as regards tips on self-editing. My own tip on this, for what it's worth, is to read your book aloud. That's particularly useful, when it comes to dialogue, but also helps with the music and rhythm of the piece as a whole.

One of the most important points Andrew made is that we're all told the mantra of  show don't tell over and over, but there does need to be some telling or there's no space to be lyrical.

The other difficulty which arises with insufficient telling in the main body of the narrative is that too much information tends to be shunted into dialogue. One creative writing teacher referred to  this as a Star Trek Moment, but it is generally referred to as an `info dump' (something you get all the time in Soaps). As far as dialogue is concerned, less is more.

We looked at Ernest Hemingway's short story `Hills Like White Elephants', which is a superb example of a pithy, revealing to and fro between lovers:
`Oh, cut it out.'
`You started it,' the girl said. `I was being amused. I was having a fine time.'
`Well, let's try and have a fine time.'
`All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn't that bright?'
`That was bright.'
`I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it- look at things and try new drinks.'

Basically, you don't want the reader to either have to work too hard at figuring out what is happening or to get bored, the idea is to create a dream world that the reader is completely immersed in.

Andrew recommended `Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Mariner and the Mutinous Crew', by Ursula Le Guin, which is full of exercises to help with the craft of writing and from which he took the necessity for `density and speed' in your writing. One of the ways to achieve this is to use good verbs (as opposed to too many adverbs) and I've noticed that the writing I most admire in both published and unpublished writers alike is a good verb!

We also looked at `Brokeback Mountain', which was a short story by Annie Proulx long before it was made into a film. Apparently, it went through 60 drafts, which shows she has a lot more patience than me. It's wonderfully economic and evocative: ``The stale coffee is boiling up but he catches it before it goes over the side, pours it into a stained cup and blows on the black liquid, lets a panel of the dream slide forward. If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong.' There's not a single superfluous word, it makes me melancholy just reading those lines, like listening to Billie Holiday.

As Terry Pratchett apparently said, `A first draft is just the writer telling himself the story.' Below shows how I feel round about draft 8:

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The All Important Pitch, Hellie Ogden & Chris Wellbelove, Festival of Writing 2015

Hellie Ogden, an agent at Janklow & Nesbit, and Chris Wellbelove, at Greene & Heaton, gave a fascinating talk about pitching your novel at the Festival of Writing in York in September.

As well as looking at writers you like and then finding their agents, they also suggested looking at The Bookseller online, as it gives good information on agents.

Once you've selected your agent(s), they were very clear about the sort of letter they would respond well to:
Dear X (spelling the name right), then a few lines showing that you have a clear sense of what your book is and where you sit in the market, eg `Here is my psychological thriller... It might sit in a bookshop alongside Y and Z.' If you have done any creative writing courses or attended any literary festivals, you should mention these next, as it shows your commitment to the process.

You should then write four or five lines about the book, trying to entice the agent, (the blurb, including perhaps a strapline, if you have one), followed by anything you have had published, but don't go back too far, ie mentioning a poem from primary school. If you have a truly amazing following on Twitter (unlike me), this is something you might mention, but it's not interesting and can look foolish, if it's anything under 2,000 or so. Don't mention what other agents have said about your novel, unless another agent has asked to see your full manuscript. It appears that this, more than anything, will wet an agent's appetite!

Put your phone number at the bottom of the email, but don't make any submissions in either October or April because of the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs respectively. Look at the submission guidelines, which usually tell you how long you can expect to wait before hearing back (if at all- some agents say, somewhat depressingly, if you haven't heard in 12 weeks, assume I'm not interested.  This caused a heated debate at various times during the festival. While agents are busy people, the consensus was that it takes less than a minute to send a form rejection). In most cases, you can give a polite nudge after a couple of months. Hellie also said it was fine to resubmit, although some agents frown on this. Her valid point was that most agents won't remember having seen something before, so if you've improved it after a book report or a severe edit, then don't worry about sending it off again.

The dreaded synopsis: One agent said to me: `Don't worry if you hate what you've produced after sweating over it for days, only psychopaths find them easy...' If should only be one page long and you need to clearly set out the plot, even if this means giving away the final twist. In my personal experience of reading the synopses of fellow students, I get confused if there are too many names, so it's helpful to limit these and maybe highlight them in bold. Leave out subplots and make every word count. Don't say: `The novel begins when...' say `It's Rome in 1940...'

Remember, the main purpose of the synopsis is so that the agent knows where the novel leads next, after the 3 chapters you are sending them (make sure these are numbered and you put the word count on the title page and your contact details!)

Below is a photo which depicts what I think a synopsis ideally needs to look like:
Elegant, clearly showing how the plot strands and themes intertwine, the fundamental, satisfying pattern of the novel.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Letters to Agents

Letters to Agents: Here are a few useful tips I picked up from listening to agents at the Festival of Writing 2015

Once you feel your manuscript is the best you can make it (and I'm really sick of the sight of mine!), you should select around 5 agents you think might be interested by checking the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook or Agent Hunter online. Make sure your manuscript matches what they're looking for, maybe research agents of the writers you like to read. Above all, follow the submission guidelines.

You need a UK agent, if you're English, so you can both meet and talk in the same time zone. I wondered about US agents, but was told they would think I'd already tried all the UK agents, with no success (the reverse would also apply). You should submit to around 4 or 5 at once, because it can take a couple of months for an agent to get back to you, so a year could easily go by, if you submitted to them one by one.

Your query letter should contain a paragraph of blurb (around 150 words) about the manuscript. It is not a synopsis and you don't have to give away the ending. You should say a bit about the characters and the setting and put in the jeopardy (if there is any). It is similar to a pitch, a way to communicate all the great things about the book.

You should also write a few lines about yourself, dropping in any authors you admire on the agent's list. However, make sure this is genuine. One agent said she kept getting letters saying the person admired x book by a writer she represented, which hadn't actually been published yet!

Don't have a silly email address, as it doesn't look professional. The agent won't want to write to `BooBear@hotmail.com'

Some agents still want written submissions. If that's the case, don't smoke anywhere near the letter. Imagine what it will smell like, when the envelope is opened a couple of days later. Again, one agent spoke from experience and the submission went straight in the bin.

Read out your letter to yourself, so it sounds more natural. It should not contain any boasting (`I look forward to a long and fruitful career with you' or 'I am writing to give you an exclusive first look at the future of publishing...')

Get the agent's name right, say what genre you think your manuscript belongs to, make sure your spelling and grammar is correct, as this is the first sight the agent will have of your writing and if it makes a poor impression, they won't read any further. The (apocryphal?) example given was: `Why does the publishing industry continue to treat me as a leopard?'

One useful piece of advice I hadn't ever considered is that most agents do the reading of submissions on the tube/train/at home etc, ie not when in the office, as their day is spent looking after their existing clients. Most will transfer your attachment to their Kindle, so you should put the title and your name on the attachment, since your email won't be there for reference. And don't make your attachment a PDF, as apparently this format isn't legible on a Kindle. Use Windows.

And when you've done all that, pour yourself a big drink, and press send!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Panel Discussion with Harvill Secker Editor, Writer and two Agents

Continued from yesterday's blog about the panel discussion with Alison Hennessey, Claire McGowan, Phil Patterson and Euan Thorneycroft at the Festival of Writing 2015:

Three golden rules for writers appear to be:

1) Take your time, don't rush submitting your manuscript. Very few agents will look at a re-submission; they are far too busy.

2) Don't despair: RJ Ellory wrote 20 manuscripts before he was agented. Therefore it's important not to isolate yourself, spending time with other writers will help sustain you. Let's face it, friends and family just don't understand and may feel neglected.

3) Good writing will get picked up off the slushpile, which is why 1) is so important. An agent may get as many as 3-4,000 submissions a year and may only take on 3 new clients. That's a 1 in a 1,000 chance on average! Alison Hennessey says she gets 30 submissions a month from agents and may only take on 1 or 2 new writers a year. I believe luck therefore has a big part to play too.

And a few more gems:
Someone is missing is often a good hook.
Amorality is interesting.
If you have more than one narrator it's really important to have distinct voices.
Plots can be fixed, but an agent has to really love the voice or they won't take you on.

Which brings me to:

The Wheel of Life

Three poisons occupy the centre of the Wheel of Life, giving it momentum.

Desire : represented by a cockerel.

Hatred/Jealousy : represented by the snake.

Ignorance : represented by a pig.

I can't do much about my desire to write (I was born in the year of the Cockerel) or (maybe) about my jealousy of those who've succeeded where I have (thus far) failed. But I can certainly do something about my inner pig!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Rugby World Cup competition plus Writing Crime Fiction with agents, writer & editor

Competition for the Rugby World Cup for all you wordsmiths out there:
Introducing the competition! your chance to win tickets to t&cs:

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Piers Blofeld at The Festival of Writing 2015

     The first workshop I attended at the Festival of Writing was run by Piers Blofeld and entitled `Don't Give up the Day Job- how to have a writing career.' With a name like that I was expecting a white cat on his lap, at the very least, but he was a humorous and relaxed speaker, although I wouldn't have wanted to get on the wrong side of him.

     He's been an agent at Sheil Land for 6 years and before that was in publishing. The main point I took away from the workshop was that agents are looking for authors who want careers. You are defined by your first book, so you should choose your genre carefully, rather than trying to switch from Romance to Crime, for example, and alienating your readership forever.

     Should any of us wannabes ever get into that enviable position of being published, he warned that it's a relentless pace, as publishers want a book a year, maybe even two. (That's all right, I told myself, I have quite the bottom drawer.)

     He also stressed how important it is to be liked by your publisher. Success doesn't come overnight, if at all, and you need a publisher who will stick with you. It costs about £45,000 to publish a book, so they are making a big investment. This led to some navel gazing, as I wondered whether I was sufficiently likable and in what way I would need to change.

     He also reminded us that 90% of books don't work. Even the wonderful Ian Rankin only got popular ten books in. It's important to have an agent- I guess he would say that. However, his reasoning was persuasive: it's okay for everyone to hate the agent. Don't buy a dog and then bark yourself.

     When submitting to an agent, the dreaded synopsis is important, as your ability to condense the plot shows it's clear in your head. Letters to agents should be simple and direct. They're the first thing the agent will read, so if it offends in any way (threats, typos, boasting etc), your material won't even get read!

     Oh, and cosy whodunnits and fireside tales are out:

Monday, 7 September 2015

Nicci French at the Festival of Writing 2015

    The keynote address for the Festival of Writing 2015 was given by that well known couple, Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, who write their thrillers under the pseudonym, Nicci French. Their latest series features the psychotherapist Frieda Klein and I took `Thursday's Child' with me on the train up to York. As a psychotherapist, I particularly love the Freud quote at the beginning of that book:

     `He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.'

     My fingertips were chattering, along with my teeth, as I waited for their talk to begin. I had come seriously unprepared for a thermostat set for hungover students at the York University Campus.

     Sean French and Nicci French both looked thin and clever; serious people who might be about to deliver a dry philosophy lecture. The moment they began to speak, however, smiling, then laughing, finishing each other's stories, they were transformed: all I could see was their charm and nervous energy. Both seemed instantly 10 years younger.

     They clearly work brilliantly as a team and have been doing so for the past 20 years. She sits in her attic and he in his shed and they email each other back and forth, taking primary responsibility for alternate chapters, but respecting each other's edits.

     They are interested in dread, in extraordinary things happening to ordinary people, their themes are ones of loneliness, doubt, of luck, the madness of falling in love and the complexities of the human mind. They constantly mine their everyday lives and the world around them, quoting Philip Larkin: How can you have things happen to you and not write about them!

Here are a few gems from their talk:

In your writing, be full of faith and full of doubt.

Have a sense of the book's journey.

When a book refuses to do your bidding, you know something is working.

Nobody will rescue you, except you yourself.

Don't sit alone in your room too long, you need to stay connected to the real world.

Sometimes you need the tension of everyday life- and a job- to make the time to write. If you have too much time, sometimes that can work against you.

So I guess you need to work hard, believe in yourself, but not too much, stay connected and keep all your balls in the air. And the energy that requires is ultimately fruitful:


Thursday, 3 September 2015

Curtis Brown Pitch

     As part of my pledge to myself to be more proactive, I decided to enter the second of Curtis Brown's last-Friday-of-the-month pitch competitions on August 28th. The idea is that you pitch your book in a Tweet and if one of their or Conville & Walsh's agents favourite it, then you can send in a synopsis and first three chapters to that particular agent.

     I hate writing pitches, synopses, query letters etc and it was good practice to get it down to those pithy 140 characters. One important writing tip I picked up from a writing class, is to ask yourself if you are using Latinate words. Don't! In my case there is always a simpler and more direct way of saying something and it's taken me a while to realise this.

     I was quite pleased with the finished product: `Rebecca tries to uncover the secret which stole her voice. Is there a link between the past & the violence escalating around her? #PitchCB'

     And then I waited! Within a minute Rebecca Ritchie had favourited it, then there was nothing. It was only towards the end of the afternoon, when I'd given up hope, that Susan Armstrong at Conville & Walsh also favourited it.

      I was heartened to learn that the basic plot appeals. I read that at the first event at the end of July there were around 2,000 pitches and only 100 got favourited. So emboldened was I that I pitched my second book late afternoon: `London. A Japanese boy is trafficked, an Egyptian man dies in a kinky brothel, an Oxford Student is poisoned. How are they linked?'

     Nothing happened! I felt so discouraged, until about 24 hours later Gordon Wise favourited it and I could hope again! How powerful these agents are...

     Going up to the Festival of Writing in York tomorrow, so I will definitely need one of these:
Followed by a big one of these:

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Festival of Writing 2015

     Having decided to believe in myself a bit more and take action- something I tell my therapy clients all the time! I've signed up for the Festival of Writing 2015 (#FoW15). It's this weekend in York and I just made registration before the cut off.

     It's 3 days away from home, which isn't too popular with my husband, but it's thanks to him that I can afford to go at all, or rather, not feel too guilty about the cost. He's into sports betting and despite knowing nothing at all about football, I managed to win £900 on a £3 8-fold bet in April, largely due to believing in Swansea. So, I'm spending some of that money on this/

     For the Festival, you could enter 500 words for a scary Friday Night Live Competition, where 7 finalists have to read out their entry, get critiqued by an agent and an author on stage and then everyone votes with a show of hands for a winner (who last year walked off with 7 agents seeking to represent her). Sadly, I wasn't short-listed, although I comfort myself with the fact that I worked out the odds were about 50-1.

     There are a couple of terrifying workshops, their version of Slushpile Live, where you read out your first paragraph or synopsis and 2 or 3 agents tell you what they think. As far as I can gather from the helpful Word Cloud for the Festival, it's a really useful session, because it shows you how agents think and manage to decide so quickly on a submission. Apparently, it also shows you how individual their responses are, eg one agent praised a sentence last year, another agent didn't understand.

     So I'm hoping to go from this:

 A (not so delicate) flower in a thick glass prison, to this:
A flowering (not so prickly) cactus!

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

First Past the Post

I arrived back from a last minute cruise with my 12 year old son a couple of weeks ago. On the formal night he was doing his best not to show how uncomfortable and bored he was in his first ever suit, when an elderly woman from the next table began to engage us in conversation. I’ve never met a more lively octogenarian. Her razor sharp wit instantly got my son laughing, as she mapped out his future as a pilot in captivating detail. Later, she turned to me and apologised for what she was about to say:

`I’ve always had a strong sense about people and, well, I feel you must be a writer.’

I felt ashamed. I’ve wanted to be a – published- writer ever since I plagiarised E. Nesbit at the age of 7. I’ve come close, even summoned to a meeting with a publicist at Hodder’s once to discuss how my novel would be marketed. That was before the sales team decided it wasn’t a winner. So I’ve grown discouraged and life has intervened in the shape of 6 adopted kids and a career as a psychotherapist.

This blog then is dedicated to that delightful woman- I have a terrible memory for names, although faces stay with me for years. She’s done more to encourage me with those few words than anyone else, ever. Thank you!

I showed this to my lovely husband and he was rightly offended that I’d chosen a stranger over him. But then maybe that’s the same reason I want to be published. It’s recognition from strangers I desire, so all his praise gets discounted, as bias.