Openings – the one thing you need before you start

This week I’ve been reading the submissions for our bursary competition on the Crime Thriller MA I run at City University. We asked for the first 1,000 words only, because in theory a great crime novel should have grabbed the reader by then. Easy, right? Or is it? It got me thinking about what really matters in an opening. What’s the most important skill you have to demonstrate? What matters most in that moment when a busy agent clicks open your Word doc, or when a reader flicks through a book in a shop?  I believe it’s one thing and one thing only. Do you want to know what that is?

Are you sure?

If this was a TV show, it’s at this point you’d hear the credits or we’d cut to the ad break. Because I’m talking about suspense – the art of keeping things hanging, or making people ask ‘where is this going?’ or ‘what happens next?’ or ‘what on earth is going on?’ I think that if you get this right in your book opening, you can get everything else wrong and it won’t matter. Yes, I mean everything. Shaky characterisation, cheesy writing, blurred sense of place and time, even bad formatting and poor spelling and grammar (but don’t tell anyone I said that, OK? I have to defend my reputation as the Scourge of Rogue Commas).

Of course, I’m not saying that these things aren’t important. A reader won’t get very far into your book if those aren’t in place too. I’m just saying that unless someone wants to read on, there’s no point in anything else. It’s Game Over. So your number one job when starting your novel is to hook the reader and pull them in.

How do you do this? It’s a long topic, and one I tend to bang on about a lot. There are many ways to create suspense, and lots of tools you need in your metaphorical writing box. I will cover these over the next few weeks, but I think above all else, when starting out you need to get your story right. It’s amazing how many new writers don’t even have a story. They have a character portrait, or a series of linked anecdotes, or some torturously beautiful descriptions of the mountains or the young boy’s feelings as the bullies flush his head down the loo. All of which may be very important and lovely, but it’s not a story.

Here’s a way to check if you have a story. Answer this question: what is your book (or script or play or whatever) about?

Look at your answer now.

Have you written a theme? (eg whaling). A character? (eg a teenage girl). A location or time? (seventeenth-century India) None of these things are story. Simply put, a story involves something happening. And for something to happen, we need things to change. To move. So your answer should involve an active verb of some kind. It should follow this kind of (very very) rough guide: ‘It’s about (character) who needs/wants (a big goal or a big problem), and so X happens (consequences, conflict, choices)’. In other words, choices are made. Problems arise and are reacted to. Things shift. Things probably go horribly wrong and maybe horribly right again. But if nothing is happening, there is no story.

Next time I’ll go into story elements in more details, but in the meantime I’d suggest having a read of this book if you have time. If not I’ll mention the key aspects next week. Try the exercise now! Any questions just message me or tweet me at @inkstainsclaire.

Starting out- events

One piece of advice I often give to aspiring writers is: go to events. When you’re on the outside, publishing can seem like an ivory-towered citadel that’s doing its best to keep out the unpublished rabble. In truth, it’s a business that’s looking for new product – it’s just that the product is your very hopes and dreams, so it can all get a bit emosh. If you start going to events, you will see that publishers and editors are human beings, and they would not be at the event in the first place if they didn’t want to find new writers.

When I say events, I’m talking about book festivals, writing festivals, author panels, writing conferences and classes. Some will cost money, but some are totally free (check out universities and book shops for these). There are lots of book festivals, and a couple of ones just for writers – this year I will be at the York Festival of Writing and also Get Writing in Watford. At these events you will find agents, and included in your entry fee you might get one-on-one time with them. You might even get chatting to them in the bar or at lunchtime. Then you can mention your book (in a cool interesting way, of course, not in a ‘I’ve followed you into the ladies’ way). (It happens). Then they might ask to see it….and you send it…and a beautiful friendship may begin!

Being known has other benefits. Writers, editors, and agents are always chatting between themselves (the industry is fuelled by 95% gossip, 4% booze. 1% cake probably), and it makes sense to mention talented new writers you’ve come across. This is also a reason doing a course is a good idea. You can of course go the traditional route- get the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and laboriously contact all the agents in it – and this works the same, and your book will get read at some point, but why not get a foot in the door, and jump yourself up the pile? Also I think the events are really good value for the information and contacts you get. I wish I’d gone to them sooner! Lists of agents get out of date really fast and there’s no way to tell who has closed to submissions and who is new and really keen to take on more writers. I cannot overstate how vital it is to pick an agent who is actively looking for new authors and likes the type of book you write.

The normal rules of socialising apply – be polite, be interesting if possible, don’t monopolise or badger. Don’t call out agents who turned you down. Pick your moment – after a panel it’s probably fine to approach the agent, but if they’re nose to nose in the bar with a pal and dripping gin and tonic down their front at 3am then maybe give them some space. Oh and get business cards and have a website where they can contact you and find out about your work. You’re on Twitter, yes? (If not WHY NOT?) You are networking now, darling. Follow people (on Twitter NOT INTO LADIES were you not listening) and again be polite, interesting, friendly.

Not unconnectedly, I have just come back from the Theakston’s Old Peculier festival in Harrogate, which I strongly recommend you go to if you write crime (also go to Crimefest in Bristol). You will be mingling with most of crime publishing and the great and good of crime writing – Lee Child is a regular and often about the hotel. Everyone is very friendly and it’s such an amazing chance to meet people. If you only any money to spend at all on your writing, I would say spend it on an event. The WAAYB also offer day courses if a weekend is too much. I had a great time in Harrogate catching up with all my reprobate writing pals – but just four years ago I rocked up to my first one, knowing nobody, armed with only my wits and my impressive capacity for wine. This could be YOU. (Only don’t drink as much wine as me. Save it for when you’re published and everyone expects you to be a slightly mad writer). See you there?

I was also inspired by this post on how one writer kept going, year after year, to eventually find big success. These things don’t happen in an instant – and even once you’ve ‘made it’ it could be a long slog.

More about starting

I have a few more things to say about getting started (what?? it’s almost like I’m procrastinating). I talked last time about taking yourself seriously. But how do you actually do this? Here are five easy ways to start becoming a writer.

-Create space in your life for writing. For some people this may be as extreme as quitting the day job, for others it will mean carving out time before or after work, at lunchtime, or on the commute. It might mean making childcare arrangements for a set amount of time. It could mean going on a retreat for a few days. Whatever it takes to get some time and space in your life. You can also try methods like the Pomodoro technique to get things done in even very short periods of time – fifteen minutes is enough!

-Make a public intention of what you want to do. Secret dreams have a way of remaining secret- forever. So think about signing up for a class, or a writers’ group, or even just going to one-off panels and events. There are lots of these (try bookshops for a start) and many are free. Start telling yourself and others that you want to be a writer and you might be surprised at how things begin to gather momentum.

-Start getting to know the industry. Go to events where agents are speaking (the York Festival of Writing, Get Writing, or another writing conference for example), follow people on Twitter, try your best to learn how things work in publishing, and above all READ. Lots of prospective writers don’t read anything recently published, but you really must if you want to understand what’s selling at the moment. Luckily, this means that kicking back with a book is a totally legitimate use of your time.

-Put some effort into it. Get a decent desk set up. Do you need a laptop stand, mouse, external keyboard? Don’t do what I did and work at the kitchen table for years (my trapezium muscles will never forgive me). Invest in a decent laptop and/or a nice notebook and pen. You will save a lot of time if you’re not messing about with an ancient computer that crashes all the time. When you have limited time, you need to be able to open the laptop and go.

-Treat it like a business, even if you’ve not made any money from it. start backing your work up as a matter of course- don’t find out the hard way how easy it is to lose things. Most writers have some kind of horror story about leaving work on the tube, or on laptops that get stolen or blow up, or on USB sticks that go through the wash. I use Dropbox, but you could also email it to yourself regularly and use an external hard drive. You really can’t be too careful! Save yourself the 3am waking-up-in-a-cold-sweat. Also, boring as it may seem, it’s not too soon to think about taxes. At the very least start saving the receipts from any work-related expenditure. And if you enjoy such things, go wild with the organising files and stationery.

Congratulations, you’re now a writer who means business. Now all you have to do is write the actual book! Easy, right?? If you don’t think so, follow this blog, where I’ll be taking you through the steps of writing a novel.

Starting

I love starting new things. Notebooks, all shiny and fresh, with no teastains or scribbled shopping lists.  Pens, before the lids get lost and the ink runs dry. And ideas, before they get ruined by, you know, actually writing the damn thing. Iris Murdoch said that every book is the wreck of a great idea, and there was never a truer word spoken. Except maybe for Goethe. The end of this is often quoted, but I like the entirety of it:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.“

Recently bestselling author SJ Watson very kindly came in to chat to my MA writing class, and I was struck by what he said about beginning. Five years ago, although successful in his career, he decided to take a step down, go part-time, enrol in a writing course, and really give his all to writing a novel. With some rather noteable success…

I thought this was amazing. It took me about twenty years to admit I wanted to write a novel, spend any money or time on it, or commit myself. I was so terrified of failing that I couldn’t bring myself to try. But why should a novel seem bigger or scarier than learning a new skill, or starting a new business? We wouldn’t expect to do those right the first time we try. To write and sell a novel is effectively begining a new career – why should we not plan, and study, and allow time to learn, and commit ourselves to a process? Why are we so scared people might not love our work right away? If you take all the angst and fear out of it, it becomes an exercise in learning. It could even be fun to try new things, and experiment, and meet new people who also love writing, and yes, even fail a few times. Lots of us (me included) say we want to be writers, but how many would take a step down in work, or give up money and time and other hobbies to make it happen? So why not do as Goethe says, and be bold. Commit. Begin it now. And if you fail to start with, enjoy the fall.

The Thirty List

ThirtyList_List1-01You may have noticed I have a book out today. But what’s this? The cover is pastel, and has a cartoon dog on? Surely there are no dark crimes in this??

Busted – this is my attempt at a romcom/chick lit/contemporary women’s fiction book. There are issues about what to call it, but essentially it’s a romance, with jokes in.

I have a theory that the best books are always written off-contract, when you’re supposed to be doing something else, but you’re cheating on your MS with this other idea that’s obsessing you. I found myself writing this all in a burst between, I think, October 2013 and February 2014. I can’t remember writing a lot of it, which I take as a good sign. It came out, nearly fully formed. This book is special to me, as that was one of the least-good times in my life (horrible breakup in the same year I’d got divorced, fourth house move in 10 months, and the money issues that tend to be the icing on the rubbish cake of both those things). Also, I quite literally got hit by a car on the day I finished it (typed on with my arm three times normal size).

But I got out of it. I wrote this book, with all its jokes and hopefulness, and I can honestly say I wrote my way out of the glumness with it. So it’s very special to me. I hope you will enjoy it too.

1. It is all about lists – there’s one in every chapter, which makes (quick check) thirty-seven lists.

2. It features three break-ups.

3. It starts and ends with a wedding.

4. It includes one cute four-year-old and one Westie.

5. Beyonce features heavily.

6. I’ve done, I think, all but two of the things on the list. Not saying which!

7. There are four kisses. Three awkward, one lovely.

8. The seed of the book came when I was crying in service-station toilets on the M25, while wearing a Christmas jumper with reindeer on it, which just goes to show, every cloud…

9. There’s a bit where someone does a Sinead O’Connor impression while wearing a swimming cap. I find this most amusing.

10. Most of the locations are places I’ve been in the last year or so. Dive bars, restaurants, stables, grotty flats, you name it.

I’d love to know your thoughts and what’s on your own ‘thirty list’ (gonna have to do a forty list now for myself). Tweet me your list items at @inkstainsclaire and you could win this ‘list kit’.

IMG_0264

Seven ways to stay positive (in the face of dropping advances, ongoing rejection, and an onslaught of articles in the Guardian)

Listen to this as a podcast – http://claire-mcgowan-ink-stains.podomatic.com/entry/2015-04-23T07_00_25-07_00

I had planned this time round to say something about a technical aspect of writing – creating suspense, perhaps, or working with viewpoint. Those are both very important, but lately I’ve come to realise that I still need to say more about the way how you feel affects how you write. I’ve encountered a few people recently who were totally fed up with the process. Sick of rejections, sick of trying and getting nowhere. Sick of putting work out there and not getting read. Sick of the entire business. And it seems every week there’s a new article in the Guardian about how writers can no longer earn a living from it and how we may as well all pack up and get checkout jobs in Tesco (I paraphrase).

I think there is truth in this, and there are important conversations to be had about how the book industry needs to change, but I don’t think it’s helpful to be pessimistic or to lose faith in writing itself. I should say right away that staying positive is not something that comes naturally to me. I’m as prone as anyone to getting into a writing slump or comparing myself to other people. I’m very guilty of not appreciating my successes when they come. I often lose confidence. So I’m writing these suggestions as much for myself as anyone else. I hope they help a bit.

So here’s seven ways to stay positive and not lose your optimism

  1. Have a think about the words you’re using and what they mean. What is ‘failure’? Does it mean, I’ve had some books published, but I’ve not selling as much as I’d hoped? Does it mean, I’ve got an agent but my book didn’t sell yet? Does it mean, I’ve won some competitions and had some short things published but I’m not a novelist…yet? What does ‘rejection’ mean? Does it just mean someone wasn’t the right fit with your book, and didn’t feel they were the right one publish it? These words aren’t helpful. I’m trying to redefine what ‘success’ means to me – for example, I finished a book, I entered a competition, I went to an event, I had a new idea. All of these things are steps to a goal, not a failure to reach it. Try congratulating yourself for any forward steps you take.
  2. One thing I’ve tried to do is understand what a privilege it is to earn any money at all from doing something you love. Yes, advances have dropped and there are issues surrounding royalty rates and ebooks and being asked to write for nothing, but it seems to me writers have always had it easier than other artists. Comedians and actors for example, can expect to work for nothing for years to establish themselves. I’m not saying this is good – just that writing is one area where it’s possible to earn a significant chunk of money at once. If you go freelance, you can’t expect to earn the equivalent of a salary. You trade off all the positive aspects with the uncertainty and the lack of sick and holiday pay. It does seem to be getting harder. But if the money isn’t there, we can’t expect to get some of it.
  3. Remember why you first started this. No one was paying you then. Even if you confidently expected you’d be able to quit your job within the year, it wasn’t certain, so you must have been doing it out of love. Out of sheer enjoyment of putting the words down on paper, creating the world. Your creativity is not defined by whether or not you are currently earning money from your writing. No one can take it away from you – you will always be able to create, and as a writer you don’t need any equipment beyond a pen and paper, or any other audience beyond yourself. The more I think about that, the more amazing it is, that anyone who’s lucky enough to be able to read and write can just start creating something, right here and now. It may be something that earns money, it may not. You still created it, simply because you wanted to.
  4. Try to focus on the transmission of the work- you made it, you’re putting it out there – rather than the reception of it. The chance of any particular person experiencing any piece of art (a book, a film, a song) vary. Someone might not see it. They might see it but not connect because of their own circumstances on that day. Or they might see it and connect and it might change them. It’s been an eye-opener to me how many plays, gigs, and comedy nights are taking place at any given time, often with not that many people in attendance. But perhaps it’s freeing to worry only about what you’re doing as the creator, and not about who is listening or what they think.
  5. Commit to living a creative life, and identify yourself as part of a community of creative people. It’s been useful for me to get to know people from other areas of the arts, and see how different expectations are from those of writers. There’s more than one way to live a creative life. If you see it as a process, a way of life, then it won’t matter so much whether you sometimes have to do other paid work, or whether you have good years and bad ones. So make the commitment. Decide you’re in this for the long haul, even if you have to suffer at times. If an artistic life is really what you want, then nothing else will ever take its place.
  6. Take inspiration! I find it helpful to talk about my worries (so and so is doing better than me, I don’t know if I’m any good, etc etc) with understanding friends (who won’t make you feel bad for it!). This week I’ve also read Very Good Lives by the wonderful J K Rowling, who advocates failing, to find out your own limits and needs. ‘Rock-bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,’ she says. I also read this great piece by the creator of Mad Men (though 30 still seems quite young…no?) http://www.fastcompany.com/3045082/my-creative-life/mad-men-creator-matthew-weiners-reassuring-life-advice-for-struggling-artis
  7. Maybe get off social media? (She says, while talking to you via social media…) I adore connecting with people online, but it’s definitely creating Comparison Anxiety. But everyone curates their lives online. No one Instagrams the bad times. Maybe I just need to ration myself more.

GOOD LUCK. You are brave and brilliant for ever trying to create something at all, and that is something to be proud of.

Just get on with it! How to finish your book

(You can also now listen to this or download it as a podcast! Fancy huh).

A few weeks ago I gave a talk to the London Writers’ Café (a great group, check them out!) about how to finish your book. I think this is an area that gets neglected sometimes. It’s easy to start, in a blaze of ideas and good intentions. You may even get as far as 30,000 words in with that initial burst, before running out of momentum. Before I managed to finish a book myself, I had countless false starts, where I would just give up on the book. I wish I’d known that it’s normal to run into problems at this stage– and also that these are very possible to fix.

I think the main reasons people don’t finish things are these:

  • Lack of time
  • Fear (of rejection, of hard work)
  • ‘Writer’s block’
  • Feeling ill, feeling tired, feeling uninspired
  • Laziness/Distraction
  • ‘I don’t know what happens next!
  • The book isn’t working

Most issues you’ll encounter can fit into one of these categories. But they can be fixed!

Dealing with lack of time

Try the following and see if they work:

Retreats-I’m always amazed by how much I can get done when I’m away, even for just a few days

Writing during lunches/After work/before work-I used to stay in my office for half an hour or so after work to write

Carving out time in your day– write in bed before you get up, at the gym, in a café, on the train…

Short bursts –can you make special arrangements for a month or so? For example free up other work, or get someone to look after your children

Pomodoro technique – this ‘fifteen minute’ approach, and other time management techniques, can really help to cut through distractions. Don’t feel you always need huge chunks of time to get things done. When I’m doing 1,000 words a day, I sometimes get this done in fifteen minutes. It may not be polished, but at least it’s there!

Fear

Some ways to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’:

Get rejected! After the first time you will quickly get used to it. I delayed sending my first book out for about six months for this very reason.

Have lots of things on the go-so you don’t have to worry so much about that one idea

Enter a competition with a closing date- it will focus the mind and help you get over your fear of submission

Join a class or writers’ group – get used to receiving feedback. The first time will probably be terrifying, but you’ll soon feel fine about it. Good preparation for those Amazon reviews that say, ‘this book came with too much packaging. One star’.

Afraid of edits or doing hard work on the novel? Sadly, there is no trick for this. The only way out is through…

Writers’ Block

Basically I don’t think this exists. What does exist is:

  • Writer’s laziness
  • Writer’s burn-out
  • Writer’s fear
  • Writer’s I-wrote-myself-into-a-corner
  • Writer’s I-hate-this-book
  • Writer’s I’m-not-really-a-writer (eg you don’t really get ideas, or you want to have written a book but don’t enjoy the process at all)

Work out if you’re suffering from one of these and figure out how to fix it.

How you feel

I think not enough attention is paid to the fact that creativity isn’t a tap you can turn on and off. It’s inextricably linked to how you feel in yourself, so it may be other factors that are affecting your writing. Why not try:

Get well- rest, eat well, have a break, exercise. Remember writing is still work, however fun it is.

Make time for thinking – staring out the window is fine. So is having a day off.

Recognise when you are burned out, versus when you are lazy. Sometimes you genuinely do need to take some time off.

Fall back in love with your idea (go back to the blurb and story)

Read The Artist’s Way and Writing Down the Bones and On Writing- all fantastic books about living as a writer

Take yourself seriously as a writer – have a desk, chair, etc all properly set up

Spend some money on your writing– a new laptop maybe, or a notebook, courses, books etc. It will help you see it as real work and remind yourself you’ve made a commitment to it.

Make the process pleasant. Have nice pens and paper, surround your desk with flowers and inspiring pictures, wear a ballgown at your desk…And of course always have good tea or coffee and biscuits!

Read the lives of great artists and writers and find yourself some mentors. I’m inspired by pictures of great writers being playful or silly, like in this great picture of Susan Sontag in a bear suit:

Read a briimages (12)lliant book

Read a terrible book- you’ll think, ‘I can do much better than this!’

Get obsessed with an idea (read newspapers? True crime?)

Go to events – meet other writers and realise you’re not alone!

Laziness/Distraction

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting on with things, and one that never gets any better I find! Still, there are some tricks you can learn to

Get away from your desk/house- I find I can’t write any new words in my flat. I don’t know why, but it’s true, and I can often do thousands of words if I just go out to a café. Worth the price of a latte!

Notebook writing- I always write my first drafts longhand. This allows me to see it more as sketching, so I don’t worry about making it perfect, and I can’t keep fiddling with the same bit. It’s also extremely portable and means I can do a bit anywhere

Turning off the internet-there are also apps like Freedom or Write or Die which will turn off your internet. If you need a real boost, you can set Write or Die so it starts to delete your work if you don’t type fast enough!

Interruptions – calls, other people, phone alerts. Try to eliminate these as much as possible. Even a text message can break my focus for a long time.

Essentially I think it’s a process of tricking and treating yourself into finishing, eg….

Daily word counts

Little rewards (like cake!)

Monthly/weekly goals

Working in cafes

Filling a notebook a month

The ‘off my desk’ 85% rule – basically this is that if I think I’ve done what I can for now, and a piece is 85% done, I’ll send it to someone else for feedback. It creates momentum and stops things stagnating on your hard drive while you fiddle endlessly.

Writing the end early on, or writing the fun bits if you have a day when you’re stuck. There’s no need to write chronologically. I often go back and fill in all the ‘connective tissue’ bits on a third draft.

Important things to remember:

  • It is totally normal to hate your book some of the time
  • It’s a process – you have to learn what’s normal for you

If you’re struggling with something, I suggest making a list of all the things that are stopping you from writing, both practical and emotional. Then write a list of the tricks and treats you are going to use to counter each one.

There is also the issue that something may be actually wrong with your book – next time I will talk about this more, and also about the different creative stages of writing a book. Good luck!