False Starts

Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where your story starts, the style that fits it, the way it wants to be told. When I was starting the Codename Omega series, I had the pieces of the story. I had fragments of plot and beginnings of characters, but whenever I sat down to start writing, the story faltered. The flame of inspiration sputtered out within a couple of pages. Something just didn’t feel right, just didn’t grab me and make me want to sit down and tell the story. Except that’s not quite true. I definitely wanted to tell the story – but I didn’t want to tell the story this way.

When I started writing the first book in the series, I thought it was going to be like the other books I’d written up to that point, Child of the Hive and the book I was at the time trying to find a publisher for, Shadows of Tomorrow. I thought it would be an ensemble story told through a group of characters with a range of different viewpoints. I thought the main characters of the story were going to be Navy, Knight, Princess, and the others of Nuke’s team. But there was a character lingering in the back of my mind. I wanted one of Mrs Grey’s team to switch sides. I knew I had to make sure that the change of allegiances felt genuine, that the character’s justification made sense, and the more I thought about it, the more this character seemed like the interesting one, the one with a story to tell.

So I tried again. I sat myself down at the keyboard certain that this time the story would work. I had my new protagonist and it was time for her to get to work.

Except the story petered out in the first couple of pages. Again. Something still wasn’t right.

I’m not sure how many times I started and stopped that story before it started working for me, but it must have been at least half a dozen, probably more than ten. It was OK though, because I kept trying new angles until I found the one that worked. Something clicked and the story started to flow and before I knew it, I had a first draft.

The reason this springs to mind now is that I have another story that’s behaving in the same way. I’ve tried starting this story three times now and it doesn’t feel right. I have a bunch of ideas floating around in my head but they won’t cooperate and get on the page in any way that seems to work, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on this story. It just means I have to try and find a new angle. I’m going to try starting in a new place or with a different character, looking at the story from a new perspective. I have all the pieces of a good story as long as I keep trying to find the place to begin.

That’s the piece of advice I want to give you: find a different angle. If you’re struggling to know where to start, pick a different character and explain how they got involved in the story, try changing it from first person to third person or vice versa, start it earlier, start it later. It’s OK to get frustrated sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t worth writing.

Submitting your novel

If you want to be an author, writing the book is only part of the book. You might have written an amazing story, but that means nothing if you can’t convince agents and editors to look at it. If you want to be traditionally published, you still have to go through the work of submitting the book to publishers and agencies. Here are a few top tips and things to think about when submitting your book. Some of these are based on my own experiences, some are based on advice I’ve heard from agents and editors over the years.

Send to the right place

I was at a talk once by an editor who worked with non-fiction children’s books. The publisher she worked for only produced educational books, but she said they still got hundreds and hundreds of submissions of fiction. Those were a waste of time for everyone involved because it didn’t matter how good those stories might have been, they were never going to get published by someone that didn’t publish stories. Pay attention to what the publisher does and doesn’t accept. If they have a big notice on their website saying that they don’t accept science fiction and fantasy submissions, there’s no point submitting your sci-fi novel. If they only publish romance, there’s no point sending your horror. You are basically guaranteed to be rejected if you send the book to the wrong place.

Most places accept electronic submissions these days, but you used to have to print out sample chapters and post them in, which meant each submission cost actual money to send. Now, you don’t waste money in the same way, but you’ll waste your time and the publishers. Better to focus on finding a publisher who does print the sort of stories you’re sending them.

Spend time on the cover letter

When you send in a submission, you send it with a covering letter or email. Some books get rejected here if the cover letter makes it sound like the book isn’t particularly interesting or isn’t what the publisher is looking for. Take your time to craft a description of the book that explains the key concepts, genre, and target audience of your book in a few short sentences. You don’t need to explain all the intricacies of the plot in the cover letter, but you need to explain how it’s going to be marketed. You want someone to read your description and think, “Yes, I’d be able to sell a book like that.”

Keep your cover letter short, describe your book in a way that makes it sound interesting, explain who would be likely to buy your book, and then proofread the whole thing at least five times. I’m serious about this last part. You don’t want to be rejected because of a typo in your first sentence.

Get someone to check your synopsis

When you submit a novel, you almost always have to send a summary of the plot. This is called the synopsis and it describes the key events that happen in the book from start to finish. Different publishers and agents provide different guidelines for how long your synopsis should be – 1 page, 2-3 pages, 500 words, 1000 words, etc. You may end up writing your synopsis several times to fit with all these different submission guidelines. I always find this incredibly difficult because there’s so much that happens in a book and it’s hard to know what to cut out. As well, you need to create a synopsis that’s coherent. Again, this is something I struggle with because I know all the background and everything that I’m leaving out, so something will make perfect sense to me while it’s thoroughly confusing for someone else. When I’m submitting a story, I will get someone to check the synopsis for me. It’s important that this is someone who hasn’t read the book because they will be in the same situation at the person to whom you’re submitting the story with no prior background knowledge. They will be able to spot any points where you’re assuming knowledge the reader doesn’t have.

This is not a definitive list of advice, but hopefull this will help you out if you’re at a point where you’re sending your story off to publishers. Good luck.

Line Editors

I have a short story, Reading Between the Lines, which is coming out in the next Mischief Corner Books anthology. It’s spent the last week going through line editing, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about what line editing is.

There are different types of editors who might get involved with your writing, particularly if you get books traditionally published. Two main types are Developmental Editors and Line Editors. I won’t go into detail about developmental editors in this post, but they essentially look at the big picture of a book. Line editors, on the other hand, go down to the details of the writing. They work through the story line by line, looking for any point where word choice is unclear, where the grammar is non-standard, or where the phrasing is clunky. They go through and make corrections or changes to the text.

I had someone ask me once if having editors work on my stories made them feel like they weren’t really my stories anymore, and the answer to that is a definite no. Line editing is a collaborative process. When I got my short story back from the line editor, it was as a document with track changes turned on. I had to go through and look at each change and decide if I wanted to accept it. If I thought the change was an improvement, I accepted it. If I disagreed, I wouldn’t accept it and I would leave a comment explaining my  point of view. One sentence in this story, the line editor and I went back and fourth on a few times before he agreed to stick to my way of doing things. In the first Codename Omega book, I used the phrase, “after an unbearable eternity” which the line editor objected to because eternity is forever so there could be no after. I was using the word as a hyperbole – when someone says, “that line took forever” or similar, people know it’s being used as a metaphor. I was confident that my readers would know I was using the word “eternity” in the same way to imply the character’s frustration at the length of the wait. As the author, I could say that I wanted that sentence to stay as it was.

At other points in a story, a line editor might tell the author that a change needs to be made, but leave it up to the author what the precise change should be. For example, if I use the same word three times in two paragraphs, the line editor would probably point this out and suggest I find a synonym, but not necessary pick the synonym for me. Another time, they might point out a potentially confusing section and suggest a rewrite, but let the author do the rewriting.

At the end of the day, the author still has control over the changes that are made but the line editors polish the story up and get rid of the rough edges. It’s an important part of the publishing process. If you’re self-publishing a book, I would strongly advise that you bring a line editor into your project.

Authorial Intent

I find articles and discussions about authorial intent interesting because, as an author, I don’t always intend some of the things that turn up in my books. Sometimes I will be writing a book, or reading a draft in preparation for editing, and be hit by something in the text. It won’t be something I deliberately put in there, but it will be something that’s there anyway.

For example, it took me way too long to realise that Mira was named after Amiron. I named both of them and I’d used a naming pattern for other characters where male names end in “on” and female names end in “a”. When I realised the connection, it clarified some of Mira’s motivation, some of the emotion behind her actions, but I noticed it after I’d already written the foundations.

I’ve just finished the first draft of a book that includes a scene discussing fancy dress costumes two of the characters had planned to wear. I included that scene because it gave nice insights into those two characters, their relationship, and their relationship with another key character. It was only after I’d written the scene that I realised there were parallels between the story I had planned for them and the two characters they planned to dress up as. Holy freaking foreshadowing, Batman! It wasn’t a conscious decision. Either I got lucky, or my subconscious is cleverer than I knew.

When I see something like this in an early draft, I can choose to work with it and build on it in the later drafts, in which case it becomes intended. That said, whenever I recognise something like this in my drafts, it makes me wonder if there are other things in there that I didn’t notice.

A lot of foreshadowing and symbolism in books is put there deliberately by the author, but it’s always worth remembering that these things can be in the book without the author intending them. It doesn’t make them any less real. If you spot symbolism/foreshadowing/parallels, then those things are there, even if the author didn’t realise they were writing them.

And if you’re a writer, don’t worry too much about trying to put the clever symbolism in right from the start. It may be that you get to the end of the first draft and see things you can build on later.

Settle down with a bad book

When you’re reading a good book, it’s an enjoyable experience. You can get swept into a story and lost in the lives of the characters. Reading a bad book, however, can feel like torture. Sometimes you can be reading a book where the plot is dull, the characters are unpleasant, and the writing style makes you cringe. It can be tempting to put the book down and walk away – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. There are so many books in the world that it’s a shame to waste time on one you’re not enjoying.

However, as a writer, we can get a lot of benefit from reading a bad book. If you find yourself reading a book that you’re not enjoying, stop and think about why. What is it about the book that’s driving you away from it? The pace? The characters? The underlying concepts? If you think critically, you can notice the things which make this book one that you don’t want to read. Sometimes, I have been known to pull out a notebook and write down a bullet point for everything I disliked as I was reading a book I didn’t like. I wrote four pages of these notes for one book I disliked intensely.

The purpose of these notes is not to go and write scathing reviews on Goodreads afterwards, but to think about the elements that make up a book. When you come to your own writing, it will be easier to recognise the mistakes that drove you away from that other book, so you can stop them from creeping into your stories.

Even if you can’t face reading a bad book to its end, take the time to think about what it is that makes you want to put the book down. The more you think about the books you read, the easier you will find it to create a book that your readers won’t want to put down.

It’s worth noting that different books appeal to different people, so a book that you think of as “bad” might be another person’s favourite book. There have been books lauded as great classics that I haven’t got on with at all. Even a definitive list of “writing mistakes” is difficult to come up with, as I discussed in my post on breaking the rules. In the end all you can do is think about what’s bad for you, what drives you away from a story, because if you write a story that you will in enjoy, you can better odds of finding readers who will also enjoy it.

Predictability

In fiction, whether film, TV show, book, or something else, there is a spectrum of predictability. At one end, you get complete predictability. At the other end, you get complete randomness. Neither is particularly good.

Sometimes you can read a story and see exactly how it’s going to unfold. While that occasionally can work out (if you’re reading a romance, you can be reasonably confident the couple will get a happy ever after at the end) often it can be boring for readers (or viewers, etc.). If you’re reading a book that’s thoroughly predictable, there’s no incentive to turn the page.

On the other hand, a work of fiction that makes a point to be completely unpredictable is frustrating. Every plot twist comes out of nowhere. Every act that saves the day is a deus ex machina. The shocking plot twist defies reason. The reader is left thinking, “but that made absolutely no sense,” about the plot which twists and turns so much that it’s tied itself in knots.

Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot, where understanding falls right before or right after the reveal.

For right before, this is the sort of story where you’re picking up on clues and building up on ideas and your thought process goes along the lines of, “I wonder why that thing happened? Maybe it could be because of this. Oh look, there’s another clue that fits. I think this is the reason. Yes! I was right.” You start working things out and there’s a big sense of satisfaction when you’re proved right.

Alternatively, you get the just after approach. This is what most murder mystery stories are aiming for. Once the detective reveals the murderer and explains why, all of the pieces slot into place. Everything makes perfect sense in retrospect and you suddenly see the clues you missed earlier.

As a writer, it’s extremely difficult to pull this off perfectly. You run the risk of having some plot twists too obvious and other ones that seem confusing. You also can’t be sure how well your readers (viewers, etc.) will pick up on the clues. One reader will pick up on every tiny clue and decide your book is predictable, while another will not spot a few major ones and be caught completely off-guard. It’s a delicate balance.

But my point is that it’s better to aim for that middle point. Don’t be unpredictable just for the sake of being unpredictable. But also pay attention to whether you’ve got enough mystery to keep enough of your readers guessing and wanting to turn the page and find out the answer.

Thinking up Titles

child of the hive coverFor me, coming up with the right title for a book can be one of the most frustrating parts of writing but that’s OK because it’s something you don’t have to do right away. When you first start writing a book, the ideas are still forming and the novel is still taking shape. Things may change later that mean your first idea for a title no longer fits. All my books start off with a working title, but that first attempt might no longer suit by the time I finish the book. For example, my first novel, Child of the Hive, started with the working title Run and Never Look Back, which I realised no longer suited the book as one of the protagonists (the one who was running) not only looked back but went back. I knew from about the fifth or six chapter of the first draft that the title would need to change, but I didn’t settle on the title it was published under until after I’d finished the third draft.

Shadows of Tomorrow had the working title of between yesterdays front coverReflected Memories until I did an exercise with a group of other writers where we were told nothing but the titles of everyone’s books and had to guess the genre and a few other details. Everyone in that group assumed my book was a memoir so I figured it was time to come up with a new title. This is actually a really good exercise to do when planning titles – find someone who knows nothing about your book and get them to try and guess the genre of a possible title. If they’re way off, it may be best to keep thinking.

Between Yesterdays started life as Path to Abomination, a title that was a mouthful to say and might be off-putting to some readers. I knew it had to change. Besides, the new title brings it into line with Shadows of Tomorrow and makes it easier to tell they’re part of a series.

Traitor in the Tower front coverThe only book that was published under the same title it started with is Traitor in the Tower. I loved the alliteration of that one and it stayed relevant to the plot of the book from first draft to published version, so that got to stay.

I think a lot of people fret about finding the perfect title. I don’t want to deny the importance of a good title, but I want to reassure you that you don’t have to get it right instantly. It doesn’t matter if it takes you ages to find the right title or if it happens right away. It doesn’t matter if you change the title a hundred times. The title can be the last thing you settle on for your book. You can even send a book out on submission under one title and, if it keeps getting rejected, consider then that maybe a change of title would help.

Breaking the Rules

jsamnI was thinking about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This is an interesting book with two protagonists – the two title characters. In some ways, it might be possible to argue that Jonathan Strange is the protagonist and Mr Norrell is an antagonist (the fact that their names are given in this order and that Jonathan gets his first name included might be a point in favour of this). So it’s very strange (pun intended) that Jonathan Strange doesn’t show up until a good way through the book. He’s occasionally mentioned in the narrative in a way that almost feels like the author is reassuring the reader than he will show up eventually.

I was once given a piece of advice as a writer that the book should start with the protagonist. Authors need to introduce the main players of the narrative as soon as possible – certainly within the first chapter or two, preferably within the first page.

Yet Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell flies in the face of this rule. The book doesn’t even start with Mr Norrell but with another group of characters, a lot of whom vanish after the first chapters are over and aren’t seen again until the very end of the book. gg

Another rule I’ve been taught is that your main characters should be likable, or at the very least sympathetic. Yet the book Gone Girl has main characters who are utterly horrible people. The narrator character in A Clockwork Orange is a murdering rapist who is thoroughly detestable. Both books are interesting reads, have done extremely well for themselves, and had successful movie adaptations.

And I think this teaches a very interesting lesson on the subject of supposed rules for good writing: for every rule you can think of, there will be a very good book that breaks it.

gbThere are rules about style that say you should avoid adverbs as much as humanly possible and that in dialogue you should use the word ‘said’ instead of a replacement, and above all you shouldn’t use adverbs in conjunction with speech tags. Despite this, when I picked up the closest book to hand (The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi) I found on page 5 (the narrative only started on page 3) the following example: “Quake?” Sharan suggested, somewhat hopefully.

There are rules that say you should never start a book with a prologue – yet look at George R R Martin. You shouldn’t have more characters than your readers can easily keep track of – still looking at you, George. You certainly shouldn’t kill off your protagonist! I’m starting to think George is doing this on purpose.

And that’s the point. For any rule you can think of that someone has stated about how to write a successful novel, you will be probably be able to think of a successful novel that breaks it. But they tend to be the exception. It’s easy to look at all these examples and think, “If they can break these supposed rules, then so can I,” but I would add a note of caution. If you’re going to fly in the face of standard advice, do so carefully. Do so with awareness that that’s what you’re doing. These rules usually exist for a good reason. While it’s possible to write an excellent book that breaks these or any other rules, you’re making your life more difficult. If breaking rule makes your book more interesting or different, that can be a great thing, but you will have to put in the effort to make it that way.

I once did a talk about the rules of fiction writing and I started with a screenshot from Pirates of the Caribbean and that line about how they’re more like guidelines than actual rules. So take any supposed rule of writing anyone tries to teach you with a pinch of salt (overuse of cliches is probably on a list of things to avoid too) but be careful that you don’t go trampling all over these rules without thinking about what this means for the story you intend to write. Breaking any rule about writing should be done as a deliberate act because it will lead to a better book, not something done out of ignorance of the standard advice and literary conventions.