I should point out that this is a book about writing blurbs to go on the back of the book, not the synopsis that you send to a publisher/ agent.
I’d heard of Bryan Cohen and his ninja copywriting skills, so I thought I’d buy his book and see what I could learn. This book is clearly and concisely written (as you’d expect) and gives you a nice step by step guide to the art and craft of writing a book blurb.
I’ve tried to put these techniques into practice. It’s hard to do, but having some guidance helps, especially when you get to the ‘Okay, I’ve done a decent draft, now how do I make it better’ stage.
I’d recommend this book to self publishers who have to write their own back cover copy.
After five years of being a published writer, I’ve written four books, been published by two publishers andI now have an agent! I’ve signed to be represented by the fabulous Federica Leonardis. The book I sent to Federica is a slight change of direction from my usual rom coms and she’s already helped me tweak it to make it better.
I’m looking forward to achieving great things together.
In the meantime, there’s cake to be had! Cheers all!
A couple of weekends ago, I went to RNAConf17 in Telford. This was my 6th conference and, as always, it was fantastic. I was in a flat with the rest of the Naughty Kitchen and sat up until waaaay past my usual bed time, eating chocolate and drinking (tea in my case, because I’m sad like that) and chatting about all manner of things. My favourite moment was when a first time conference attendee suddenly said “It’s so nice to be in the company of so many women who UNDERSTAND what it’s like to have people living in your head.” Yep. We get that.
Oh, and I had a lovely fan girl moment when I ran into Sarah Morgan. I love her books. I babbled. She was very gracious and let me take a photo with her.
I attended talks on how to manipulate images, how to ‘do’ social media, the future of the industry etc. The most eye opening talk by far was by Dr Ria Cheyne who talked to us about her research project into the representation of disability in romantic fiction. Her talk about about things to be aware of when writing disabled characters in romance. This is something I’m interested in. I’ve written depressed characters before, which I’m comfortable doing because I’ve been there. I have an idea in embryo about a mobility impaired character, and, since I don’t have first hand experience of it, I know I need to do research to make her life realistic.
Anyway, here are my notes from the session. If you have time, please visit the DisRom Project and take their survey. Pass it onto friends who read romance.
They’ve only had 500 or so reponses to their survey so far, so not enough to draw conclusions from. But responses to the question ‘Would a disabled character on the cover or in the blurb make you LESS likely to buy the book’ were 1%! Most people said it made no difference. A few people (around 19% said ‘it depends’).
The advice for writing about disability was:
Do your research – look at forums, speak to people with similar conditions. Don’t assume anything. Eg. Wheelchair users aren’t ALWAYS in their wheelchairs. A person using a white cane isn’t necessarily a 100% sightless.
Don’t use disabled secondary characters as a way of showing how good a main character is.
Don’t make disabled characters mysteriously wise (make them real people).
Be wary of recovery narratives where the disability is suddenly cured by a bonk on the head or a new miracle treatment.
Be mindful of language. Eg ‘She was a wheelchair user’ is different to ‘she was confined to a wheelchair’.
Remember hidden disability – not all disability is obvious or visible.
The questions at the end were also illuminating.
We discussed why representation was important (everyone deserves a happy ending!) and talked a little bit about how people reclaim derogatory language and how someone in wheelchair calling themselves a ‘crip’ is potentially realistic and non-offensive, an able-bodied person calling them that would be offensive, just as it would be in real life.
We also discussed how it was a good idea to have people familiar with the condition beta read the book before it goes out. This is a sort of ‘sensitivity beta read’ to check for mistakes or misconceptions rather than to check if anyone is offended by anything (people are offended by all sorts of things, you’d never write a book that doesn’t offend someone, somewhere).
It was a really interesting talk. It made me think about a lot of things.
Here’s the link to the survey again. Please do fill it in (and share).
This post is a bit late, but hey, better late than never. As I may have mentioned before, my book Girl Having A Ball was shortlisted for Romantic Comedy of the Year in the 2017 RoNA awards. I was delighted with this. The RoNAs are run by the UK Romantic Novelists Association and are a pretty big deal. They’re the UK equivalent of the RITAs. Also on the shortlist were some well known authors – Cathy Bramley, Penny Parkes, Ali McNamara and Joanna Bolouri. Here we are (minus Joanna, who was poorly) looking all glamorous.
I rocked up at the fancy venue unfashionably early, so I got to take a picture of it before it was jam packed with glamour. Once people started arriving, I was too busy chatting take many more photos.
I’m always surprised at RNA events how many people there are to say hello to and how genuinely warm and friendly everyone is. Even people who are in competition with each other are friends – I chatted to my fellow shortlistees and liked them. It always takes the sting out of losing, if you like the person who won!
A number of my friends were also shortlisted, in different categories, so the excitement factor was running high.
I didn’t win my category (Penny Parkes won, with her excellenet, Out of Practice). But my mates Janet Gover (Epic Romance Category, with Little Girl Lost) and Kate Johnson (Paranormal and Speculative Fiction Category, with Max Seventeen) both won awards. After the official event finished, there was a mass trip out for pizza to celebrate.
I had a totally amazing time at the RoNAs. I might even go again next year.
The results will be announced on the 13th of March, so there’s over a month to wait to find out what happens. The other people on the shortlist are Cathy Bramley, Joanna Bolouri, Ali McNamara and Penny Parkes – all of whom write fantastic books. It’s an honour to be in their company.
If you have read Girl Having A Ball, I’d be super grateful if you could leave a review. The number of reviews a book has really makes a difference to how well it sells. I know I read reviews before I buy anything, I guess everyone else does the same.
Did you do NaNoWriMo? Did you hit your target? Brilliant! Well done.
I’ve never done NaNoWriMo. My kids are still small and disappearing into my room to write for hours on end seems a terribly indulgent thing to do right now. I take the slow and steady plod approach because it fits well with my life. Either way seems to work. The important thing is getting the writing done.
Anyway, the point is, you’ve written a whole novel. Take some time out to celebrate – not many people make it this far. Go out. Watch telly. Remind your friends you exist. Woo hoo!
The next thing to do… is ignore it for a few weeks. This gives you a bit of distance. You can combine that with more celebrating, if you like (I would). Once you’ve got past THAT, then you need to edit.
Your first draft might be a little rough. Don’t panic. It’s allowed to be. The purpose of the first draft was to get words down on a page. Once you have words, you can edit them. You can’t edit a blank page.
First fix structure. If you didn’t do any plotting at the start (some don’t), now is the time to deal with it. Go through the novel and make a list of scenes. Put them on Post-It notes or index cards, if you like. I make a list on a couple of sheets of A4. Do what works for you.
Look at it from a story arc point of view. Are the scenes in the right order? Do things happen logically? Does the tension rise throughout Act 2? Can you increase the tension by moving a scene from here to there? Do two characters sound exactly the same – can you combine them? Move stuff around and see if it works.
Now do the same for the character arc. Make sure the way your character changes as the story progresses is also logical. Hopefully, it will be.
Cut out the deadwood. A long time ago, an editor told me that a scene has to do at least three things in order to justify keeping it. One of those was ‘tickle the senses’. Working on the assumption that ALL scenes should be doing that to some extent, let’s see what else a scene can do to earn its keep.
Introduce a new character
Introduce a new setting
Change setting (transitions of time or place)
Set a mood
Show a new facet or a change in a character
Reveal something key to plot
Establish motivation for something that comes later
Heighten mood or build suspense
Provide comic relief or humour
Move the action forward (internal or external arc)
Basically, if it isn’t relevant to your plot, the scene has to go.
What if your scenes don’t do three things? See if you have combine a couple of scenes or tweak it a bit until it does. You need to be fairly brutal with this. If you can take the scene out and not leave a hole in the overall story, then it has no place in your book. Around half of the books that I critique are well written, but suffer from a surfeit of irrelevant scenes. Often, once these books have been ‘tightened up’ they go on to find publishing contracts.
Keep a folder for these scenes that you’ve cut. You will probably find a lovely turn of phrase or a snippet of description that you can use elsewhere.
Once you’ve done the ‘big picture’ editing, you should end up with only relevant scenes. Have another look at it and check if anything else needs to be moved around or added.
Edit for consistency. Read through the story as it is now. It might be very different to your original draft (or it might not). Catch typing errors as you go. Note down when you need to add or change things so that the story makes sense. Go through your notes and make changes. If your character has suddenly changed their name, go through and fix it. If there’s a huge hole in the plot, work out how to fill it in. If you need to plant a clue in chapter three in order to make something less like a coincidence in chapter seventeen, go do it. Often all that is required is a sentence or two.
By the end of this stage, your book should read coherently, with no extra flabby bits.
Edit for language. Is your writing as good at the sentence level as it can be? It is worth bearing in mind what you are trying to achieve. I write genre fiction, where the hand of the author has to be invisible, so that there is nothing in between the page and the images in the reader’s mind. An easy read can be very difficult to write. On the other hand, if you’re writing literary fiction, your writing needs to transcend the mundane. People are looking for brilliance. The perfect description, the right word. No killing your darlings here. A difficult read can also be difficult to write.
A really good way to make sure your writing flows the way you want it to, is to read it out loud. You might feel like an idiot doing this, but it works wonders for catching clunky sentences.
Use beta readers. Once all this is done, it’s time to send the book to a beta reader. This is a reader whom you trust to give you honest feedback. You’re looking for things like ‘this bit doesn’t make sense’ or ‘where did X character disappear to?’ or even ‘this bit is really boring’. It will feel harsh, because you thought your book was done to perfection. Stick with it. Let the feedback sink in for a few days, then go sort it out. You’ll know when they’re right.
A word of caution with beta readers. When you and your beta readers are all just starting out, it’s better to have two or three people read your draft. If more than one person identifies a problem with a section (even if they highlight different problems), then that section needs to be changed. Some people will tell you exactly what to change – take advice, but remember that ultimately it’s your book and only make changes that feel right to you.
If you get feedback from a professional editor/book doctor/ published novelist, pay extra attention to their comments. They will have seen a lot of books and will be able to spot the mistakes all beginners make.
Now, you’re nearly done. Read it through one more time to check for typos and syntax errors. Better still, bribe someone else to do it. By now you’ll be sick to death of this book. The idea of reading it again will make you feel ill. It’s not the book you started out with. It’s a terrible mangled wreck of your beautiful idea. But… your beta readers like it and you know in your heart that it’s the best it can be. It’s probably ready to send out to agents or publishers.
While you’re waiting to hear back, you can start work on your next book.
Last week, I was asked to give a talk to a group of counselling trainees at my local FE college about creative writing and academic writing. The contact came through my local writing group, The Beverley Chapter. I was suggested to the FE college because I once belonged to the world of academia and still do a lot of technical writing and, as you know, I write fiction.
The brief I was given was fairly vague and I found myself standing in front of a group of 26 adult students, with an hour to fill. So I started off by outlining who I was – someone who had always wanted to write fiction, but was encouraged to do something more ‘practical’ so that I could get a job when I grew up; Biochemistry degree and microbiology PhD from Oxford; short-lived post-doc career; the move into information science and intellectual property, ending up with my current job of IP officer for a university. In parallel, a second career as a romance novelist. After that, I ran out of steam a bit.
Luckily, they asked questions. Here are a few topics we covered:
Parallels between structuring a novel and structuring an academic essay:
Both have a beginning, a middle and an end. In academic writing it is an introduction, an argument (or, in case of science papers, a experimental section) and a conclusion. We discussed how a novel is essentially an illustration of an argument. The argument is the theme. Good will triumph over evil, the end doesn’t (or does) justify the means, love conquers all adversity – these are all themes which are exemplified in stories. You use characters to explore the theme.
Why use creative writing in academic writing:
I told a story about how I learned a load of stuff as an undergraduate. I was good at learning stuff and passing exams, so I did it. I even found it interesting from time to time. But I didn’t appreciate why it was important until my fourth year.
I chose to take a module called Genetics and Disease. One of the textbooks contained testimonials. The first one I read was about the CFTR protein and its gene – which is linked to cystic fibrosis. This chapter had a section written by someone whose sister died of cystic fibrosis. The contributor talked about their grief of losing their sister, about how, if she had lived longer, she could have benefited from drugs that could have improved her quality of life, and about how the contributor herself felt about the fact that she was carrying a defective copy of the gene that she could pass on to her children. This testimony moved me to tears. Suddenly, this module which was about genes and proteins and metabolic systems had meaning. It affected real people. This was important.
People are interested in people. Give case studies, where possible. It’s all about human interest. As novelists, we know this. People read to see what happens to the characters. In academic writing, there is less room for characters, but if you can find somewhere, get them in. Give the work a human context.
Does passive writing have a place:
Yes, I believe it does. Nothing we write is ever truly objective, but writing in the passive voice forces us to frame things in a more objective way. Most report writing is done in an objective way, but I know that in my own reports, my word choices are affected by how I feel about an invention. The facts remain the same, but at some point my opinion comes into it, sometimes without my noticing. If I describe something as say, ‘eye-catching’ it conveys a different impression to if I described it as ‘flamboyant’.
This lead onto a side discussion about opinions and their place in formal documents. There are times when you are required to give a professional opinion. This can be in the form of a recommendation. It is important that the reader is told that this is an opinion and not a fact. The facts that were used to arrive at the opinion need to be clearly listed in the text before. The introduction – argument- conclusion format lends itself well to this.
We discussed the flailing around stage in the middle of documents. I talked about the dreaded saggy middle that all novelists face. We talked about the thread of the narrative and how real life has events all over the place – some relevant to the plot, some not – and how, as a novelist, I have to work out which events drive the plot forward. If they’re not relevant to the plot, I have to leave them out.
This lead to a very interesting discussion about the counselling process where you know where you started and you know where you ended up, but you’re trying to work out the narrative of how you got from one place to the other – which events were relevant, which events were background noise.
Towards the end someone asked me why I write romance (because from my background, it would seem I’d choose sci fi). Here’s my answer:
It’s about people falling in love. Why would you not want to write about it? People are endlessly complex. I write about people and how they change. The change happens to involve falling in love.
Besides, that first kiss feeling is wonderful and I live it again and again through my characters.
But, as they rightly pointed out, you’d expect me to read a lot of sci fi. I did when I was younger. Also fantasy and crime. I still do read those, but nowadays I read a lot of more romance and women’s fiction. I have a theory that this fits better into the way I read post-kids. I no longer have the luxury of diving into a book and staying there for 3 hours until I’m too hungry to carry on. I read in 5 to 10 minute bursts. I also have a shockingly bad memory (mumnesia, it’s really a thing). A romance novel is mainly about an emotional arc, which is easier to pick up and put down.
I read A Game of Thrones recently (only the first one, I’ll get to the next in time). DH and I discussed it later. I went on and on about the relationships and the emotional arcs of the characters. He asked me what I thought of the politics … tumbleweed. I’d been too invested in the character conflicts to really pay attention to the subtleties of the politics. I got the broad brush stuff (you can’t miss it), but the subtle power games… nope.
I love reading thrillers (not horror – I’m squeamish). Again, I will plug into the emotional tension and feel the characters’ fear in my short bursts of reading. Give me something where the character emotions are secondary to the beautiful descriptions and I’ll probably put it down after two chapters.
This being a counselling group, we also talked about how I wasn’t allowed to read romance novels as a young teen, in case it gave me ‘ideas’. I was supposed to focus on studying. I grew up in Sri Lanka, where this was normal. I negotiated with my mother and read ONE Sweet Dreams romance. One. In the end, I decided to write my own. I still have my old typescripts – they’re badly faded and the edges have almost melted from being handled by hot little hands, but you can still read the notes my school friends scribbled in the margins. Reader feedback. It’s a wonderful thing.
The people in the group were all very lovely and said it was different and interesting talk. I hope it was. It was certainly a very interesting experience for me. The people I usually talk to are writers who are more interested in the how than the why. It was interesting to be made to think about why I write what I write. I still come to the same answer. People are so fascinating. Why wouldn’t you want to explore them more?
I’ve found out that the links to the Beverley Guardian website no longer work (the paper has closed down). So I’m reproducing my articles here.
Point of view
Last time I wrote about character. Inextricably linked to character is point of view. In the context of writing fiction, it helps to remember that the phrase ‘point of view’ has two meanings. One is the position from which things are being observed; the other is an attitude or way of considering matters.
The first of these is fairly obvious – whose eyes are you seeing the story through?
In a first person narrative (where the main character is ‘I’), the reader is seeing the world through the eyes of a character, usually the protagonist. You can only see, hear, feel what they can. It’s like one of those video games where you can look down and see your character’s hands, but you have no idea what their face looks like. First person narratives are brilliant for getting deep into the feelings of the characters. It’s very immediate and immersive. There’s a reason most young adult novels are written in the first person.
The difficulty with a first person narrative is showing the reader things that are not directly said or done or felt by the main character. If, for example, your main character just told their mother some bad news. How do they know how their mother felt? They can infer from the fact that she gritted her teeth and threw a cushion at the cat that she’s angry, but they can’t actually know, because they (and therefore the reader) can’t see inside their mother’s head.
If you’re writing in the first person, take extra care when the character describes themselves. If a character says “I flexed my well-honed pectorals” – you need to ask yourself what sort of person thinks of themselves like that. If your character is a shy gardener, he wouldn’t think about his muscles – apart from if they hurt. If, on the other hand, the character is a gym-addict, then naming muscle groups and flexing them could come naturally.
Writing in the second person (where the main character is ‘you’) is uncomfortable to read for longer works, but can work well in short stories. Like the first person, it’s immersive and visceral.
The third person narrative style (where the main character is ‘he’ or ‘she’) is very popular. You pick a character and follow them around. You can take the reader deep into the feelings and motivations of your characters. Or you can keep it slightly shallower. Personally, I prefer the deep third, but it doesn’t suit everyone. A third person narrative gives you a bit more freedom with description than a first person narrative, but you still need to keep to things that your point of view character can actually see and feel. For example, if they’re on the telephone, they still can’t see the person at the other end of the line nodding in agreement.
The omniscient point of view, where the narrator knows everyone’s thoughts and feelings, is rarely used in modern fiction. The main difficulty with this is that reader does not stay with one character long enough to identify with them, which makes it harder to care about the characters. On the other hand, Virginia Woolf uses it masterfully in Mrs Dalloway. If you can write like Virginia Woolf, you don’t need to be reading this column.
The other meaning of ‘point of view’ is to do with the way your character views the world. Your character’s beliefs and mood will colour how they see things. Two different characters will view the same object differently. For example, if you’re describing an old house – an imaginative child might see a spooky haunted mansion while their property developer father might see a fabulous investment. Even the same character could see the same things differently depending on their mood. A meal that a happy person would describe as delicious could taste like sawdust to the same person if they’d just had their heart broken. If you want a lovely illustration of this, watch Despicable Me 2, where Gru walks down the street twice – when he’s happy, he joins in with the street musicians and plays with the kids, when he’s sad, he glowers and stomps his way along. When describing settings or even action, think about how your character is feeling. Allowing your character’s mood to influence the description can help add depth and resonance to your writing.
While it’s entirely possible to write the entire book from the point of view of only one character, there is no reason why you can’t have more than one viewpoint in a story. In fact, using different point of view characters is a great way to increase the conflict – your reader can know why character X is doing something, while character Y has no idea.
Some writers like to keep entire chapters in one point of view, others will change narrators in successive scenes. There are no rules on how often to change point of view (or not), apart from making sure that you always take the reader with you when you make the transition. The reader should never have to go back and check whose head they’re in. Changing point of view suddenly mid-scene should be done with care, or the reader may feel that the writer is ‘head hopping’. Some readers (myself included) can’t stand head hopping , while others barely notice it.
Point of view can be difficult to master, especially if you’re writing in the third person, but getting it right will make your book a much more satisfying read.
I’ve realised that the Beverley Guardian website has disappeared, so I’m reposting my columns here.
People like to know about other people, that’s why we watch soaps and listen to gossip. Even news stories are more memorable if they have a human interest angle to them. All good stories are about people. The best stories involve people being changed by what happens to them.
The character arc is the description of what happens inside a character over the course of the story. The character’s emotional journey, if you like. This is what stops your story from being a list of events and gives it a purpose.
Do you need an emotional arc to a story? If you’re writing character driven fiction, then yes, it’s essential. If you’re writing action thrillers, then you might be able to get away without, but really, even then, having an inner journey still helps. Jurassic Park (the first movie, not the book) is an action film about rampaging dinosaurs, but the real story is Sam Neill’s character learning to care about those two kids.
So how do you get a character arc? Character arcs are all about change. The most common and arguably the most satisfying sort is the positive change, where the character has a flaw or a misapprehension around which they have formed their world view and, through the story, this changes so that they are a happier person at the end. It is possible to go the other way, of course. Breaking Bad is a fabulous negative arc.
First of all, get to know your character. Figure out what their story problem is. Perhaps your hero tries to do everything himself because he doesn’t trust other people not to let him down. Or has no self confidence. Or needs to prove he can see a project to completion. Find what their emotional problem is. This is how they are at the start. Now work out where they need to be, emotionally, by the end of the story.
People are naturally resistant to change. No one switches from one state to another suddenly, so avoid having your character have a massive change of heart at the last minute. The character’s journey from one state to the other has to happen in stages; several small changes that eventually add up to a major change in outlook by the end.
The trick is to get the external conflict (the big events that happen in the plot) to mirror the internal conflict (the emotional change). On the face of it, this sounds difficult to achieve, but it’s really not that hard. Firstly, if you’ve done your homework and got to know your characters, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how they will react to the major plot events. Even if your story is about a librarian fighting against invading Martians, every event will elicit a variety of emotional reactions in your Librarian. Focus on the reactions that are relevant to their emotional arc. Add some small reflection of their emotional state alongside the major plot points.
If you’re the sort of person who writes into the mist without planning, don’t worry. Just adjust the focus in the scenes when you come to edit the first draft.
Another approach is to use the emotional conflict to generate the smaller plot points. For instance, if we back to our example of the hero who needs to learn to trust others; He’ll start of trying to do things by himself because other people would only let him down. At some point he’ll have to trust someone with something small. They don’t let him down. He’s surprised – maybe there’s hope for other people yet!
The next time he needs to trust someone, he’s a little less reluctant. It works out again. He unbends a bit more. Then things go wrong (they always get worse before they get better) and someone lets him down. He thinks he was right all along. He can’t trust other people. Other people are unreliable. Except, he knows that’s not always true. Just before the end, he needs to take a leap of faith – which he takes because everything that’s happened to him so far in the story has changed who he is. By the end of the book, he’s got over the worst of his inability to trust people. He won’t have flipped over to being totally trusting, but he’ll be at least on his way there. Put in events to show all those points and suddenly your plot will start falling into place.
The better the internal and external conflicts mirror each other, the more satisfying the story is to read.
Not all of the characters in the book need to change, of course. In a lot of novels, the only person who really changes is the protagonist. Because I write romance, my books have emotional arcs from the two main characters. They must both change in order to be happy. Sometimes, a major secondary character will have an emotional arc too. Generally speaking, lesser characters can go through a book without changing significantly. If you find that one of your secondary characters is displaying a more interesting character arc than your protagonist, then perhaps it’s time to consider that character as the lead in a later book.
So how do you know the character has changed? Well, they can stop and think about it – but that’s not very believable. Far better to show the change through what they say and do. Was there are scene somewhere near the start that highlighted their problem? Write a scene towards the end that echoes the opening, but shows how different the character’s responses are.
Working out your characters’ internal struggles can really help pull a story together and makes for a more satisfying, emotionally resonant ending.