helencareybooks

A site for readers and writers

Welcome to Helen Carey’s blog

Hello, welcome to my blog. It is designed for readers and writers. I am a published author (see my book page above), an avid reader, and I teach creative writing at university level. I have also worked as a reader for a couple of publishers and a literary agent.

If you would like to subscribe to this blog, just click the ‘Sign up by email’ or ‘RSS’ box on the right, I will only be posting a few times a month so you won’t be inundated and you can unsubscribe at any time.

I often think about the choices writers have to make – this latest post gives some tips!

Happy reading!

Helen

Too many choices?

There are so many choices involved in writing a novel. Too many for comfort. What time period? What setting? What structure? What genre? What characters? Where do they live? What is their past life? What motivates them? What events? How true should it be to real history? What is the time frame? What is it all really about?

All, or most, of these need to be answered before even starting out. No wonder wannabe writers are often put off at the first hurdle.smashing keyboard

And as soon as you’ve made those decisions, (assuming you haven’t given up in despair or put a hammer through your keyboard,) another wave of questions immediately comes hurtling towards you.

How are you going to tell the story? Whose point of view? First or third person? What tone? What voice? Where should it start? What is going to kick the whole thing off? Where is it going to end? How are you going to layer in the clues to make that ending satisfactory? And, horror of horrors, what are you going to put in the middle?

Obviously there are even more choices to be made further down the line. Choices about style, dialogue, punctuation, action versus exposition, amount of description and what words to use. But for now I am going to focus briefly on the question of what to put in the middle. Or, as it is more commonly called, the plot.

Plots are tricky things to get right. But when they work, they really work, engrossing your readers in your make-believe world so effectively that they keep turning the pages, even at chapter endings, and finish up by feeling that their lives have been enhanced in some way, their spirit lifted, and, best of all, eager to start reading your next book.

There are lots of things that can go wrong with a plot. The basic premise of the story might be too weak. The concept may lack believability. The story might be too predictable, too yawn-makingly obvious. The inherent conflict set up by the opening may not be sufficiently escalated. Readers also lose interest when crucial bits of information are missing, key scenes avoided, or if there is too much repetition. On the other hand there may be too many red herrings, inconsistencies or loose ends. As Chekhov said: ‘One must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no-one is thinking of firing it.’ The ending should not appear random or insubstantial, or, as so often seems to happen nowadays, to have been plonked in by the author just to get the whole damn thing over with.

There is no magic formula for a great plot. And no quick fixes for a bad one. It is the individual decisions that writers make that are the key to success. So take time to ask yourself if your story is genuinely interesting. Are your characters’ quests worth pursuing? Is there plenty of variety in your twists and turns? Is the writing crisp and focussed? Is the whole thing leading somewhere?

If the answer is yes, then you are well on the way to a bestseller.
If the answer is no, then I give you permission to go and get that hammer from your tool box!

How do you learn to write?

inspirationIt’s a funny thing with writing, some people think they can just write without doing any learning at all and others feel they’re not going to be able to write successfully without doing an MA in Creative Writing at a top university.

Both approaches have validity. There are successful writers out there who have never attended a single writing course or read a How To book. There are also successful writers out there who have MA’s and PhD’s in English Literature and Creative Writing coming out of their ears.

There are also a lot of writers somewhere in between.

What there aren’t many of, I would suggest, is many successful writers who aren’t also voracious readers.

One of the first things I do when I start teaching my Novel Writing courses is ask the participants what they are currently reading. You might (or might not) be amazed by the number of blank looks I get.

Tip 1. So my first tip for wannabe novelists (or any writers, really) is to read. And not just books in your favourite genre, read widely and eclectically, modern and classic, thrillers and romances, literary and popular. And don’t just read. Analyse. Sometimes this is hard to do if you are swept away by the story, but that it just the moment when you need to stop and think to yourself, ‘Why am I so engaged? How is the author achieving this page turning power?’ (If you can’t stop, just treat yourself to one enjoyable read through, and then read it again to analyse!)

Tip 2. My second tip is to read some How To books, blogs and writing magazines. Some are better than others. Some of what you find will help you, some will make you want to jump off a cliff. But it all adds to your portfolio of tips and techniques.

Tip 3. Have a go. Until you have tried to write a novel you won’t really know what you find difficult and what comes easy. You might find you are a dab hand at story structure but can’t write descriptions for toffee. (Or, slightly more worryingly, in my view, you might be able to pen a beautiful, emotive description but be unable to create engaging characters or a compelling plot.)

Once you have worked your way through tips 1-3, then, if you feel the need, the moment may have come for (Tip 4.) a writing course. There are masses available, varying from practising writing exercises at a monthly local writing group through to full time University postgraduate degrees. Just make sure you choose one to suit your needs, and check that it is taught by someone who knows what they are doing and who has some kind of reputation.

Tip 5. Practise makes perfect. I was talking to a group of published writers recently and we all agreed that we had written about a million words each before writing our breakthrough novels. Don’t give in to the temptation to publish your first novel straight away, just because nowadays you can. Work at it, or preferably write another, and publish only when you have something that’s really going to make your name.

Good luck!

Look out for:
Robert McKee’s courses:
The Arvon foundation writing courses
Julia Cameron’s creative rekindling – The Artist’s Way
Bridget Whelan’s book – Creative Writing School
Writing magazine:

Romance is in the air

Everywhere I go at the moment there are hearts and roses. Love is in the air and we might as well enjoy it. Some of us are lucky enough to have our own Valentine waiting for us at home (!) but whether we have or not, reading a romantic novel is another great way to celebrate!AOL0-600

As an author I am often asked about my favourite books and whether they have influenced my writing. I have always been a big, and eclectic, reader. My reading has definitely influenced not only what I write about, but also how I write it. I might add here how amazed I often am when I talk to other writers (especially wannabe writers) and discover how little they read.

I’m convinced that analysing how successful authors structure their stories, how they create characters and achieve that all important ‘page turning power’ is the best training a writer can have. ‘But I get far too engrossed in novels to stop and analyse them,’ people say. But of course it is exactly those extra-engrossing novels that we should be learning from – so read them twice! Certainly all the novels on my favourite romantic reads list below are ones I have read at least twice.

Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth – a very clever, beautifully written, literary novel set in Venice in three different periods of history.
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif – a sweeping desert adventure set in N Africa, wonderful writing and compelling story.
Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough – a big Australian saga about impossible love. Choose this for a long and engrossing read.
Eightsome Reel by Magda Sweetland – an intensely emotional sweeping Scottish saga.
The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye – a hugely satisfying romantic historical saga set in 19th Century India, amazing sense of time and place.
Frederica by Georgette Heyer – a Regency romance with humour, elegance and style, one of her best.
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller – if you are short of time, read this and weep!

My own books all have elements of romance in them too, Some Sunny Day is probably the most emotional of the Lavender Road wartime series. The Art of Loving is specifically designed to make you laugh and cry. And of course Slick Deals contains the enigmatically sexy Nick Jardine!
Enjoy!

Why are we so shy about romance?

wartime romanceOver the last few years there has been a big rise in sales of romantic novels. For a while the industry was puzzled, but gradually the reason has become clear. With the advent of Kindles and iPads people have suddenly found themselves able to read romantic fiction without detection. Gone are the days when you had to conceal your Mills&Boon in the pages of War and Peace in case your boss sat next to you on the tube. Now you can upload romances to your heart’s content (as long as you can still talk knowledgeably about The Catcher in the Rye in an emergency!) and romance sales have consequently boomed.

So why are we so shy about our love of romantic fiction? Perhaps it is partly because the so called trashy romances gave the genre a bad name. But there’s also plenty of badly written crime fiction around (not to mention shockingly poor Ian Fleming imitations) and that hasn’t given the crime/thriller genre a bad name. Of course the British literati have turned their noses up at romance for years, often refusing even to acknowledge it as an important element in the popularity of certain ‘literary’ novels. Runaway bestsellers such as Birdsong and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin are praised by literary critics for the quality of the writing, the historical accuracy and powerful characterisation, but very few praise them for including a cracking love story!

And why shouldn’t we relish a romantic novel or two? They are just as difficult to write. What is any novel, after all, but a means to escape the real world and lose ourselves in an exploration of make-believe, whether it be exciting cliff top chases (Slick Deals), gun battles, gruesome murders, wartime life (Lavender Road), psychology, fantasy, science fiction or romantic relationships (The Art of Loving)? Whether we like to admit it or not, romance, in one form or another, plays a huge part in our lives. We humans are emotional beings and it’s not surprising that we seek out novels that allow us to explore our feelings and fantasies. What is more surprising is that we still feel the need to have The Catcher in the Rye up our sleeve!

So as we head towards Valentine’s Day once again, why not treat yourself to a really good, engaging, romantic read? You might be pleasantly surprised.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS

This is just a quick message to wish a Happy Christmas to all you lovely followers of my blog.Sampler_3

I have been hard at work over the last couple of months writing the fourth novel in my LAVENDER ROAD series. I feel as though I have been living in 1942 so it comes as quite a surprise to find myself about to celebrate Christmas 2013!

And what a difference. In London in 1942 there were no whole, fresh turkeys or chickens to be had for love or money (or food ration book tokens!) And of course there were no frozen ones either in those days. The best most people could manage for their festive lunch was a chicken and dumpling pie. Sugar, suet and dried fruit was in short supply too so Christmas puddings were either very small or non existent. The toy shops were pretty much bare of everything except cardboard models and most fathers found themselves making toys and/or dolls from salvaged bits and pieces for their kids. One old lady I spoke to told me of a treasured necklace she had been given by her fiancé made from cherry stones!

Crackers and paper hats were often made out of newspaper. And if you fancied a festive tipple, the likelihood was that your local pub would have asked you to bring your own glass! It was easier to buy Wellington boots than shoes and, because of the difficulty in finding them, women no longer had to wear hats in church.

The British government encouraged people to give each other War Bond savings vouchers as gifts, and the Red Cross encouraged people to ‘Adopt a Prisoner of War’ (rather in the same way as people sponsor endangered wild animals nowadays!)

At Christmas 2013, millions will have been been spent in the UK on pet food alone. In 1942 it was illegal to put breadcrumbs out for the birds.

So there you go – enjoy the festivities, and remember to relish your freedom and your food and your gifts – and don’t forget to raise a glass to all the stalwart souls (like my characters in LAVENDER ROAD) of 1939 – 1945 who made it all possible!

Do you have a distracted writer in your life?

decisionsThere’s nothing worse than indecision. It is debilitating, frustrating and exhausting. All those ‘Should I/shouldn’t I’s, ‘But what if’s, ‘Which’s, ‘When’s and ‘How’s cause our little brains to work overtime, jumping from one option to another like demented fleas.

And those demented fleas are especially active at night, about 4 o’clock in the morning in my experience.

For any normal person that is bad enough, everyone has decisions to make, things to worry about. That is a fact of life. But it seems to me that writers have even more than most.

Not only do they have the usual day to day issues, like ‘Should I take Fido to the vet or will the bramble wound heal on its own?’, ‘Has Little Johnny got in with a bad set?’, ‘How can I get out of this awful job?’ or, (for the lucky few,) ‘Shall we join Mr and Mrs Moneybags on their yacht in Barbados at Christmas or would the Seychelles be nicer?’ Those are enough to keep anyone awake at night. But writers, especially novelists, also have another whole layer of decisions and anxieties to cope with, ranging from ‘Is this the right word?’, ‘Shouldn’t that be a semi colon?’, through ‘Is this scene (the one I’ve just spent two days writing) really necessary?’, ‘How much back story do I need?’ to ‘Oh no, I think I’ve lost track of the main theme,’ or ‘Should I just give up and get a job as a dog groomer?’ and so on and on and on …

Sometimes those decisions are easy to make and sometimes they niggle away for days (and nights) waiting for a flash of clarity, which normally comes just as you’re negotiating a contra-flow on the M4, or just as you are falling asleep with no pen or notebook on your bedside table.

And then, eventually, when all those decisions are made, new ones pop up, like what publisher, what cover, what promotion, what kind of launch party, will anyone buy it.

I’m not complaining. Far from it. Being a writer is a wonderful thing. But it’s not the stress free, soft option that some non-writers imagine.

All I can say is that if you are a writer then be sure to give yourself a complete break from time to time, and then go back and make those choices. Don’t give in to indecision. Work it out as best you can and press on. You can promise yourself time to improve it a few months later when you are doing your first edit. And don’t feel guilty for neglecting your friends and family – explain what’s going on, if necessary direct them to this article!

And if you are a non-writer with a writing friend, relation or partner, then be patient. Exhaustion, distraction, forgetfulness and grumpiness are normal, the writer in your life still loves you and they will rejoin you soon, but just now they have an awful lot on their mind.

Who are the gatekeepers?

So, your novel is finished. You have mulled, agonised, edited, lost confidence, honed, polished, regained confidence. And now you want to get it published by a ‘proper’ publisher. So you peruse The Artists and Writers yearbook, you ask fellow writers, you check out who published your favorite novels and then you wrap up the first few chapters of your treasured masterpiece with a synopsis to die for and an irresistible covering letter and send (or email) it off to your chosen agent or publisher. gatekeepers

So far so good. But what happens next?

Well, unless you are a well known name, or have a good track record, (or have chosen the tiniest publishing house in the world) the chances are that your manuscript will be allocated to a ‘reader.’

So who are readers? What do they do? And, more importantly, how much power do they have?

Professional readers are used by the larger literary agents and fiction publishers mainly to take a preliminary look at unsolicited submissions (the delightfully named ‘slush pile’). Sometimes specialising in a particular field of expertise or interest, such as contemporary crime, historical fiction, sci fi etc., a reader’s job is to assess to what extent the synopsis and the first few chapters (5000 words or so) of an author’s manuscript meet the criteria of the publishing house or literary agency and whether the author has commercial potential.

And the most important term here is ‘commercial.’ Despite the impression they sometimes like to give of being the only true champions of style and erudition, keepers of the literary flame, publishers are actually in the business of making money. And their professional readers are their gatekeepers.

Aha, some of you may be thinking, being a publisher’s reader sound like a great job. What could be nicer than reading for a living? Well, yes and no. Finding possible winners is great, but wading through piles of obvious no-hopers is not. Having the skill to detect potential is not the same as enjoying a good read. Publishers look for a high level of discernment in their professional readers, an awareness of the market and an understanding of what really makes a novel work, stylistically, emotionally and commercially.

When a reader finds a submission that does tick all the right boxes then the opening chapters are recommended for a second read by an editor and if the editor agrees then the author will be asked to submit the complete work for further assessment. Hurrah!

I will list the elements readers look for in my next post but for now my advice to aspiring novelists is:

• Read widely to get an understanding of the market.
• Hone and re-hone your novel, especially those all important opening chapters and the synopsis, to make sure that you are submitting absolutely your best work.
• Write a compelling synopsis and covering letter.
• Check that the agency or publisher is appropriate for the type of work you are submitting.
• Read the submission guidelines.

Having been a reader myself I know only too well how many potential novels bite the dust for reasons quite apart from their literary or commercial merit. Reasons like the fact that they were actually, er …, poetry, or they were (illegibly) hand written, or didn’t come with a synopsis, or did come with some kind of unfunny, sales gimmick. Or, commonest of all, (can you believe it), didn’t have a return address or contact details.

To get past that all-powerful gatekeeper a novel really has to shine. You need to give it all the help it can get!

Why do people write novels?

chicken motivationBy any standard writing a novel is a long hard grind. Despite popular opinion, very few novelists ever hit the real mega buck level (many don’t hit any buck level at all). But yet judging from the plethora of wannabe novelists on Twitter and Facebook, it appears that almost everyone nowadays is an aspiring author. So why do so many people do it?

I often ask the students on my writing courses what their motivation is. And here are some of the answers: ‘I want to make sense of the world, to explore my emotions, something awful happened to me and I want to write about it, because I love using language, it’s something to fill the time, I love books, I want to inform people about something, create another world, explore an issue, I’m bursting with a story to tell, my family is so funny I want to write about it, I see it as a kind of therapy, I want to share my knowledge, I want fame and fortune, I want to create something that lives on, a legacy,’ and so on.

These are all perfectly legitimate reasons for having a go at writing a novel. They do not, however form a good basis for writing a successful novel.

Let’s see what what the same students look for in a novel.

‘That feeling of getting completely immersed in a good story, I look for a clever plot, an escape, I love getting to know new characters, I want to laugh, I want to explore different worlds, to live other people’s lives, being be emotionally engaged, I want to be entertained.’

So I think we can see there is a bit of a mismatch. The word entertain, for example, rarely appears in the first list and yet always appears in the second list. This doesn’t matter at all if the writer realises that the hilarious exploits of their family are unlikely to bring them fame and fortune. But it does matter if that’s what they are aiming at. They are pretty much doomed to disappointment.

On the whole, people read books because they want to be entertained. Now, some people are entertained by dismal accounts of other people’s private misfortunes, some people even like being lectured to about obscure issues, but what most people really want is a book that grips them from beginning to end, about a subject that they find interesting and peopled with engaging and believable characters.

So if you are on the brink of starting to ‘write a novel’, stop for a moment and ask yourself what your motivation is. Then ask yourself what is the outcome you hope for. If you are going to aim for the fame and fortune option, then you are going to have to study your craft very carefully and prepare to write a lot of novels during the learning process. If, on the other hand, this is a one-off for your own pleasure or to amuse your family, then fine, just go for it.

In either case, knowing what you are up to will help you do it better. And I wish you the very best of luck with it!

The importance of endings

book traumaThe current mantra for writers and wannabe writers is ‘If you want to people to buy your book then you need a great opening.’ And yes that’s true, the first few pages are crucial. If you don’t hook your reader straight away as they browse in the book shop or online then you’ve pretty much missed the boat. The early introduction of empathetic characters, an alluring setting, an enticing hook – all these things definitely help to sell books. But there is another reason people buy books and that is because they have recently finished a book by a particular author and they want to read another. So, getting readers to want to read more of your novels is clearly a ‘good thing’.

But what makes them want to read more? Well, all the usual suspects … a compelling idea, a well constructed plot and story structure, characters that live on beyond the page, and, I would suggest, a really good ending.

I often hear people say ‘oh yes, I enjoyed that novel but it tailed off at the end,’ or ‘the ending was bizarre,’ or ‘it had a really disappointing ending’. First impressions are important for attracting readers but it’s the final impression that brings readers back for more (or not).

My least favourite endings are a) when there’s a huge explanation at the end about why everything has happened, b) when the author clearly has run out of steam and it all just peters out, c) when it’s so enigmatic you don’t quite know what’s happened d) when the characters suddenly start acting ‘out of character’ just to get it all finished. There are lots of other examples – I’m sure you can think of plenty too!

So, what is a good ending? It doesn’t have to be happy, it doesn’t have to be dramatic, but it does have to leave the reader with a sense of emotional satisfaction, of completion, of growth and resolution.

And how do you create a good ending? I believe it all comes back to planning, if the author knows exactly where the book is headed before starting to write then the character motivations can be set up right from the start, the clues can be layered in and the theme and purpose of the novel can be focussed and consistent.

As my regular blog readers will already know I am not a fan of the ‘I’m just going to start and see where it goes’ school of writing. For one thing these writers (like Nick Clegg) often never reach the end at all, and for another it doesn’t bode well for creating a coherent whole with a satisfying ending. Writing is a craft – I’m quite sure Michelangelo didn’t walk up to his block of marble and think to himself ‘ah yes, I’ll chip away a bit and see what happens.’

People sometimes say authors are only as good as their last book, I might say they are only as good as their last ending!

Would you be happy if you’d won Wimbledon?

andy murraySo Andy Murray has won Wimbledon (and the Olympic gold and the US Open). He has even managed to improve his public profile, not just by playing well but by showing us that he is a quirky, public spirited, generous and mildly humorous young man and not, it seems, the surly, monosyllabic adolescent we all thought he was last year. He is a national hero. So we can safely assume he is happy that he has achieved his ambition.

Or can we? I have a sneaky feeling that he is already starting to think that it might be quite nice to win two consecutive grand slams, or to prove that his Wimbledon success wasn’t a one off and that he would have won even if Nadal and Federer had still been in the draw …

What I suspect is that since last week the goal post (or in his case the net cord) will have changed and he will now be aiming for something even bigger and better. Because these sportspersons don’t rest on their laurels, they are never happy with what they have achieved, they always want more.

It is just the same with writers and wannabe writers. ‘I’d be so happy if only I could get my book published …’ quickly becomes ‘I’d be happy if only I had more sales/more fan letters/more prizes/more acclaim/a film deal …’

I read a blog post today by a lady who felt brought down because she hadn’t found a publisher for her dog training book even though she had a zillion (or thereabouts) ‘likes’ on her pet blog. Another from someone disappointed by being runner-up in a novel writing competition. A third by a published writer peeved that he wasn’t getting enough Amazon reviews.

In contemporary life we are programmed to strive, to aim high, to set targets, to court success. But it seems we aren’t programmed to enjoy that success when it comes. When my first novel was picked up and published by Orion I should have felt absolute delight. In fact I felt a vague sense of dissatisfaction; somehow the reality of the moment didn’t live up to my expectations, the cover wasn’t quite as nice as I had hoped, I found the book signing sessions a teeny bit boring and my agent was already hassling me for the next in the series.

So what I’m saying is we need to try to take time enjoy the moments of triumph, however minor they are in our own mind, or in the big scheme of things. Ambition is fine, but there’s no point in it if we don’t relish the smaller successes it brings on the way.

Success comes in many guises, it’s not just about prizes, fame and healthy royalties. We can’t all win Wimbledon (I’m delighted if I get a few serves into the box). We can’t all be J. K. Rowling. But we can train ourselves to feel happy when we achieve something, even if it is only finishing a chapter, getting a nice review or successfully house training a new puppy.

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