30 October, 2012

Waterstones and Amazon Sitting in a Tree...

... uncomfortably making small talk and pretending they get along just fine.

Did anybody else see this article on the BBC? It's the story that the new Managing Director of Waterstones has signed a deal with Amazon to sell its Kindle in store. Already unpopular for dropping the apostrophe from the name of the famous chain of bookstores, many people think James Daunts's most recent exploit is madness. Why sell the very product that is meant to be killing off the other products you sell?

It's this madness that makes me think he's on to something. The man is a former banker, used to making big commerical decisions. He could be mistaken, but I don't believe he's actually gone into this without doing some sums. He must really believe that it's the best thing for Waterstones. As he says himself,

"If they [the customers] choose to read digitally, then I have to get involved in that game."

If you read the article, you'll see that Mr. Daunt has some big plans for Waterstones - some of which sound really good. This isn't a man trying to kill off the biggest bookstore on the high street. But we're all fallible. Do you think he's made a big mistake?

I have to admit that I don't use an e-reader of any sort and I really love books as well as the stories they contain. But there's no point pretending digital publishing hasn't taken the world by storm in the last few years. And I'm pleased to hear that increased sales of digital books have not led to an identical decrease in physical books. At the moment it seems as if digital publishing is just encouraging people to read more.

This brings me to the controversial point of how we buy books. Both Amazon and Waterstones have been accused of killing-off independent booksellers. And, I confess, I buy nearly all my books on Amazon - often second-hand. I know that if I was an author struggling to make a living, I would want people to be buying my books new, but I only buy new when buying a present or when I know the author.

Last year, I think I bought one book from an independent store. I love the idea of independent bookshops, but I'm not doing all that much to support them. Just as many people love the idea of butchers and grocers, but still get all their food at Tesco. (For the record we get our milk, meat, eggs and veg locally!). I know I'll be partly to blame when independents don't exist anymore.

Do you buy from independents, chains, or online? Do you think it matters if we lose independent stores, or is it just hard cheese for the sellers? And do you buy more books now so many are available digitally?

24 October, 2012

It's Like So Totally Unnecessary...

In my last post, I gave you a glimpse into my little world of overwriting, by displaying a word cloud of my novel Thousand-Word Things, before the final edit.

One notable thing about this cloud, was the size of the word 'like'. It was big. One of the biggest - and therefore most commonly-used - five words in my entire novel. And this was after I thought I'd been really careful about using it. As I did my final pre-submission read-through of the novel, I managed to cut out a good number of 'like's and I was struck as I did so by how many different ways we use such a small word.

Here are some of the ways I spotted...

  • to show a preference for something - "I like your novel," said the literary agent
  • to make a simile - the novel was like a refreshing drink on a hot day
  • to consider two things as being similar (this point is like the one above) - the book was like another by the same writer
  • to replace 'as if' - it's not like the author was already a best-seller
  • to replace 'as' - the editor was unhappy with the sales figures, just like you thought she would be

Have I missed any from my list? What other ways can you use the word 'like'?

For me, these final two points were my downfall. I must have written 'like' instead of 'as if' a couple of dozen times at least. I should point out that the novel is written in multiple first-person voices so the tone is informal, though I don't usually have that excuse! In many cases I replaced the 'like', but in many other cases I left it. People don't talk with perfect grammar and when trying to differentiate between five voices, it's useful to have one or two subtle verbal tics or quirks to help identify a character.

It's easy to get paranoid about word frequency once you start analysing it. Sure, we don't want flabby sentences, but we also don't need to cut to the bone all the time. I'm pretty sure nobody would really notice 'like' as it appears in my novel (well, they will if they read this post!). There are so many other unnecessary words and phrases we use that create an amateur impression - unusual physiology (his eyes darted across the room), unnecessary directions (he looked down at his feet), double-action overwrites (she reached over and picked it up) - 'like' is probably the least of our problems.

Anyway, hasn't Facebook made 'Like' the coolest word in like the whole world now? That's what I've heard.

Is there anything you find distracting if an author uses it too much in a book or short story? (I personally find  over-used ellipsis distracting). Any words becoming a bit too popular for you? (It doesn't annoy me, but I find it amusing how many novels are named 'The _____'s Daughter', and 'The _______'s Wife'!)

18 October, 2012

Thousand-Word Things

This week I finished writing my novel, Thousand-Word Things. Allow me to introduce you to the nutshell version...

Written from multiple viewpoints, Thousand-Word Things is a story about art, lies and the normality of madness. Physics professor Rosemary Blunt is leading a double life, split between peaceful retirement on the Sussex coast and secret visits to her comatose husband in the next town. While still deciding whether he should live or die, the security of her secret is threatened by the arrival of an abstract artist who has his own reasons for not being entirely truthful about the past.

It's taken me a year to write this novel. I started last November with three short stories of mine which hadn't worked out as I'd wanted. I spent a month hacking them into some semblance of a coherent novel then wrote the first full draft at the beginning of 2012. It was so awful I nearly gave up there (turns out multiple viewpoint is very hard to write)! But here we are two further drafts down the line and I'm glad I persevered. 

This time last week - after I'd finished, but before I'd done my final read-through - Thousand-Word Things looked something like this:

I'm sure most of you will have seen word clouds before. They are a visual representation of the frequency of words in a text. So if one word is twice as big as another, it appears twice as often in the novel. This one was created using the amazing (and free!) Wordle.

My two main characters are obvious, but the other big words surprised me. Apparently I used 'know', 'like', 'back' and 'time' a lot in this novel. I'd made a word cloud of the previous draft, in which 'like' and 'just' had been ridiculously big, so I'd been very careful with them in this version. In the case of 'like', not careful enough.

So after my final read-through, I took each of these words and found every use of them, cutting the ones I didn't need. I eliminated a few 'know's, 'time's and 'back's but the real cutting came with the use of 'like'. It was quite a revelation to me how we use one little word in so many different contexts. But it's a revelation that can wait for another post. I'll end this one with a quote from early in the novel:

"Everybody always says that a picture paints a thousand words, but that’s not good enough, is it? I want to paint things that you can’t picture, that you can’t take a photograph of; things that you can’t ever describe – not really – not even in a thousand words.” - Ben; Thousand-Word Things.

Have you ever used word clouds to check your writing for over-used words? Which words do you use too much?

16 October, 2012

Traditional or Self-Published?

Self-publishing used to be the preserve of those writers who were not good enough to get published in the traditional way. There were some exceptions, but most self-published books sold a few copies to loyal friends and family of the author, and the spare copies then filled the author's garage or attic for years to come.

Not anymore.

Self-publishing has become respectable. Many talented authors and amazing books have been self-published and it's no longer something to be sneered at. With the explosion in digital book sales, a self-published author doesn't have to stock up hundreds of hard copies of a work that might not sell. Free software means a book can be formatted and published online with little or no cost (though woe betide any author who wants to appear professional and hasn't bothered to get professional proofreading and cover design!).

This means there are tonnes of "published authors" out there. Some of whom are great, many of whom are not. Of those writers who aren't what we might loosely term "professional" standard, some know that they are not, others have been fooled by well-meaning friends into thinking that they are the next big thing. Not that I have a problem with any writers self-publishing - if they can sell a few books, make their family proud, enjoy themselves and feel as if they've achieved something, good for them. And you never know, you could self-publish and find that you are an amazing writer and a runaway success. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

However, this publishing phenomenon is having an odd effect. Namely, everybody now thinks it's easy to get published. In a way, they are right. Anybody could publish their own work and put it up for sale. But some of us still want to be published the traditional way, and that's still very hard indeed.

I would never say never when it comes to self-publishing. For my just-finished novel to be published traditionally it needs to not only be one of the one in 1000 books sent to agents each year that gets accepted, but then go on to be sold by that agent to a publisher.The odds are tiny. If I fail to get anywhere with this route, I may well try self-publishing.

I know that by self-publishing, I would learn a lot about formatting, selling and marketing. But I don't have a passion for those things. I want to spend my time writing and editing. I want somebody with no emotional investment in me, to believe in my book too. For an agent to be as excited about my book as I am and to sell it to a publisher, is what I dream of, not putting my own name on Amazon.
Image from:amazon.co.uk

I think traditionally published books are generally of a higher literary standard than most self-published books I've seen. But I am, of course, generalising horribly. I also know from experience that my writing improved ten times more from having a professional editor give me four pages of specific pointers, based on my writing, than I had learned from trial and error - or the advice of friends - across the course of an entire year. But there are good and bad books in both categories; this post isn't about better or worse, it's about the traditional and the new. Unless and until I am published by somebody other than myself, I feel as if I'll never quite be sure whether I am an enthusiastic amateur with a modicum of talent, or a writer able to hold her own on a bookshelf with established authors.

My novel is finished and in a few weeks I could either have it on Amazon for people to buy and potentially be making some money from it, or I could have it ready to sit in the slush pile on the desks of several agents, waiting for rejections to roll in. And unlikely as it seems, I know which one I'll be choosing...

Anybody else out there still holding to the old-fashioned dream of being traditionally published? Or do you relish the idea of having complete control of the whole process?

11 October, 2012

The Book... by Caroline Everall (2)

The next in my series of guest posts on the books that mean something important to us. Here's another from Caroline Everall, telling us of the legacy of a very special book.

The Book I've used professionally.

Image from Amazon
‘Carbonel’ by Barbara Sleigh was dramatised on radio’s Children’s Hour around 1961. Even
my father would rush home from the office in order to hear the next episode in the 5.30 to 6pm
slot. I was given the book for the following Christmas, and I’m now on my second copy, the first
having fallen apart many years ago. It’s about two children, a cat prince who needs to reclaim
his kingdom, and the old lady witch whose binding spell needs to be broken. There must have
been thousands similar written since then, but this one makes an excellent out-loud read.

I first used it in class on my final teaching practice, in a border mill-town. Most of the Year 3 children came from quite disadvantaged families, and had had three teachers in the past year. ‘You’ll never get them to sit still for a story’, I was told, but ‘Carbonel’ caught their imagination, and within a week I could use lack of storytime as a threat for almost anything! It was so successful that the school started getting requests for details, and I ended up taking orders and buying about a dozen copies through the local bookshop. And the day I left, one mother rushed up and hugged me at the bus-stop because not only had it got her son reading, but also his father. Result!

Since then I’ve used it many times over with every age-group from 5 to 11. They’ve all loved it, even the footballing toughies, and both my copies have become ragged with over-use. I probably owe it a debt of gratitude for taming so many sets of little beasts.

Does anybody else remember these books? They sound magic! Might be worth getting a copy if you know of a reluctant young reader. I know I read this book (and the sequels) as a child. I don't remember the plot at all, but just the title fills me with a sense of excitement - I do remember than I was absolutely enchanted by it!

As with her previous post, Caroline Everall is a retired teacher and brains behind Clutterbox, a website where you can find plays, assemblies and other resources for teaching primary-aged children.

09 October, 2012

A Writer's Guide to Overwriting: Speech Two

The second of my posts about writing dialogue...

If you are able to successfully navigate the pitfalls of tagging/attributing speech (see my confessions on the subject here), the next step is to make the dialogue itself work. This can be harder than it looks.

What annoys you about speech when reading? Too much? Too little? Ham-fisted attempts to write dialect/accents?

Some new writers try to avoid using speech because they're worried it will go wrong. But speech can often tell the reader in two lines what it takes a paragraph of prose to write. It breaks up long chunks of text, gives insight into character and helps the reader connect with the story. It's important.

Realism is where it gets tricky. Some writers write things that nobody would ever say. If you fancy having a go at doing that, you might like to try this sort of thing:

"Your sister's coming over for dinner tonight, Harry - the one with the philandering husband, two children and job in PR which she hates but is too afraid to quit in case she become a frumpy housewife. So I've made a casserole but I've had a really busy day so I haven't had time to peel the potatoes yet as my mother just called and her dog, Chi-Chi, who we took on holiday with us last year and you hate with your whole heart, is sick. Maybe you could go and get changed and then help me by laying the table in our Georgian terrace with a big garden out the back."

OK, an extreme example maybe, but the point is that speech is not the place to get in chunks of information you're afraid you'll leave out elsewhere. Nor does anybody talk for more than a couple of sentences without getting side-tracked or interrupted.

The opposite of this, is what I do - make it too real. Again, if you want to join in, consider writing something like this:

"You alright?"
"Yeah, you?"
"Yeah, I'm OK. Nice weather."
"Won't last though, will it. Never does."
"Nope. Ah, well. What can you do?"
"Yeah. So I've been meaning to ask you..."

Booooooooring! Yes, people might talk like this, but readers don't want to know. I'm not quite this bad at writing speech, but to make my speech work takes a lot of editing. I might not find I've written anything this boring, but I've often included lines of dialogue that just aren't necessary. This is particularly true when it comes to answering questions that have been posed at the end of the conversation.

"So I'll see you at eight tonight then, right?"

Probably that entire bit of dialogue isn't necessary, but supposing that it was vital to ask the question, it still probably isn't vital to answer it, if the answer is just an affirmative like that. The scene could end with the question.

There are plenty of resources out there to help you practice writing dialogue - should you need it. So, as a definitely-not-expert, I will only offer two thoughts:

Thought one - if you read your dialogue out loud can you actually imagine somebody saying it?

Thought two - If you take any conversation or scene in your writing and removed the first or last lines, would the conversation still make sense? If so, cut them!

This last point is one that has finally begun to sink in with me. It works not only with speech, but with prose as well. My "first and last" editing rule is a variation on the old "don't show exits and entrances" rule. But that's something for another post...

Is your speech realistic enough, or too realistic? Or do you have/ have you heard a great tip for us on how to write scintillating speech? As a writer who is always trying to improve, any tips are welcome!

03 October, 2012

Reader or Writer?


Not all people who read books, write them - or even try to write them. But all writers must read. At some point before they became great novelists, playwrights, essayists or poets, even the most famous writers learned to read and were readers rather than writers.

So at what point do you stop being a reader who writes, and start being a writer who reads? 

I've been thinking about this because as writing takes up more of my time and I learn more about the technical and creative aspects of it, I've found that the way I read has changed. I find it very hard to read now without editing sentences in my head as I go. It's almost as if I can see the thought-processes of the author.

I'll note the way a paragraph is built up and the particular choice of words a writer has used. I can see why they might describe something in a certain way or how they've played with sentence length. All those effects that we pick up subconsciously as we read - mood and charactersiation etc. - are suddenly appearing like stage directions in my head. I see how the author constructed them and manipulated us, the readers. It's almost as if I'm reading two books at once - the published one and the one written between the lines - the scaffolding behind the story,

Once I'm settled into a book I find gripping I can usually stop myself analysing, but it takes effort. As with a good film you shouldn't notice how it was shot, in a good book you shouldn't notice the writing*. It should appear effortless, not contrived or trying to be too clever. But when writers read other writers it's a bit different. You can't help analysing. (Just as I imagine somebody who knows the film industry can't help analysing camera angles when they watch a film).

Sometimes I get annoyed with myself. I want just to read and not edit sentences written by other authors decades earlier. But it has also enriched my reading experience. I appreciate those moment of brilliance that I may have never noticed if I hadn't started writing. And both ciriticism and amazement are making me a better writer. It's a positive circle - reading makes me a better writer; writing makes me a more engaged reader; more engaged reading make me a better writer, which makes me a better reader and so on...

So what are you? Reader, writer, reader who writes or writer who reads? I appear to have evolved into a writer who reads. But I'm OK with that. All readers should try writing sometime - it really enhances your appreciation of the art of literature.

If you don't write at all I'd be interested to know what sort of book you might like to write - if you could be brilliant at writing without any effort. I've always thought that I'd like to write thrilling 1930s crime novels, but I would have no idea where to start!


*This rule goes out of the window when you get to the great works of film/literature, or particularly stunning moments in them. I spend most of Steinbeck's or Marquez's books with my mouth open at how awesome the writing is. Similarly, while watching Downton Abbey at the weekend, I found myself exclaiming over how beautiful composed/lit a certain shot was (and I know nothing about TV or film!)