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Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Five tell-tale signs of a novice novelist

Kindle and its friends have opened up new opportunities for writers. No longer do wannabe novelists (or any kind of novelists come to that) have to go through the frustrating rigours of trying to find an agent and publisher. Nor do they have to expose themselves to the resultant weeks of silence, or to the eventual soul destroying rejection slips sent out by the brutal, clearly blind-to talent, self appointed guardians of the ‘real’ publishing world! No, they can bypass all that nonsense and within a few days of completing their manuscript they can pop it up on-line and it can be available for sale to the world’s readers. 

But there is a catch. The world’s readers may not be quite as picky or fussy as agents and publishers but they are still going to be quite picky and fussy. In the good old days publishers were prepared to work with authors to polish their books to a ‘professional’ standard. But times have changed, and all authors, especially self published authors, now have to do the polishing themselves or find a good editor to do it for them. Readers don’t particularly care how a novel is published but they will care if it fails to live up to their expectation of what a ‘good’ novel should be (even if they can’t quite pin down why). 

Here are five of the tell-tale signs of an ‘un-polished’ novel by a novice novelist. 

1. Lack of Story Structure – (different from plot, a good story structure provides a sense of pace and progression that makes a story really work.)

2. Insufficiently rounded characters – (novice writers tend to make their characters too good or too bad. Nobody likes a goody-goody, and baddies become less sinister if they are just caricatures of evil.)

3. Muddled Point of View – (it’s hard for the reader to engage with a character if the writer allows the viewpoint to jump from one character to another every other sentence.)

4. Dialogue being used for exposition – (when characters start telling each other back-story or other things they both already know the reader starts yawning.)

5. Too many typos, grammatical errors, and continuity mistakes. (Some will creep in inevitably, but allowing too many gives a bad impression.) 

Lots of the self-published novels on Kindle are great, virtually indistinguishable from ‘traditionally’ published novels. But many of the others carry at least some of those tell-tale signs of a novice writer (and lack of editor). That’s not to say they are not enjoyable. But I would suggest that writers should try to iron out at least some of the issues above before either approaching an agent, or publishing their own work. In the competitive market in which we now find ourselves, the more professional a writer seems, the better chance they will have of achieving the acclaim and readership they deserve.

Researching WW2 – treasuring those memories

However you define the term ‘historical novel’, there can be few things more daunting than being asked to write about events which you yourself don’t remember, but which other people do. This was the position I was put in when Rosemary Cheetham at Orion commissioned me to write a series of London based street sagas set during the Second World War. 

When my agent set up a meeting to discuss the project, Rosemary’s first words were, ‘Oh dear, I didn’t realise you were so young.’ Obviously this was a matter of opinion! Nevertheless the implication was that she had hoped for someone with at very least a few childhood recollections of cowering under a Morrison shelter in the corner of the kitchen while V2s whistled overhead. 

Clearly this was not the case with me but I was reluctant to be defeated at the first post by the trifling problem of my age: ‘Goodness,’ I said. ‘There’s so much material available about the Second World War. I can easily research it.’ 

It sounded easy enough. But what I hadn’t quite appreciated was exactly how much material there was. 

That was over ten years ago. Now, as I start researching the fourth in the Lavender Road series, on top of the published (and unpublished) histories, diaries and letters,  the museums, the themed ‘attractions’, the official reports, the local history libraries, the films, film footage and endless BBC documentaries, there is also the internet with a million WW2 sites and a plethora of WW2 online enthusiasts. 

But what there aren’t so many of now, sadly, are real live people who remember those eventful years.  And it was people’s memories that I found the most interesting element of my research last time around. Yes, historical records are great, but nothing compares with someone telling you at first hand what it was like to be caught in Balham tube station when a bomb severed the water main, or to crawl through the cellars of a collapsed building searching for a trapped child, or to take a tiny riverboat over to rescue soldiers marooned at Dunkirk, or to be parachuted into occupied France. And it’s not just the big events, it’s the small memories too, Americans soldiers sticking their chewing gum on the door of a hospital ward while they visited injured colleagues. a precious pound of sugar carried in a tin helmet, the terror of a war office telegram, the delight in a fresh egg. 

Yesterday I interviewed a ninety year old doctor who had been present in the laboratory where they developed the first penicillin cultures. He told me that they had to use bedpans to grow the cultures in, they simply didn’t have anything else suitable. Later on he casually let slip that in 1941 his ship was torpedoed at night crossing the Atlantic and he spent several hours tossing about in the dark on a makeshift raft in his dressing gown and slippers, waiting to be rescued. 

 That is one of the odd things about the war years, people who lived through it often look back as though it was all quite ordinary. But it wasn’t, it was extraordinary and it forced people to show extraordinary amounts of courage and resilience. That’s what makes it such a fascinating period to write about. At the very least it is a way of preserving some of those precious personal memories.

Readers have responsibilities too

So here we are as writers, locked in our garrets, eschewing social life and family responsibilities, slaving over a hot laptop for hours on end, week after week, maybe even year after year, our entire focus on creating a cast of fascinating characters and a make-believe but believable world for our readers to get lost in for a few hours.  

A few hours? Yes, that’s right. A few hours is pretty much all it takes to read an averagely paced 100,000 word novel. Then they close the book, (or switch off the Kindle,) lean back in their chair, take a deep satisfied breath, smile to themselves, stretch, scratch, check the time and realise that dog/ family/Guinea pig hasn’t been fed, and with a last fond glance at the novel (or Kindle) they put it to one side and rejoin the real world. 

And all the months the writer spent in the garret didn’t even include the time spent in editing, packaging, marketing, and promoting (let alone Tweeting). That’s another whole time consuming (and uncomfortably competitive) ball game, one which writers are obliged to enter into just at the point when they want to start writing the sequel! 

Now I’d be the last to complain, even about the non-writing aspects of being a writer, because I love the process of writing. There is nothing I enjoy more than creating a page-turning story with characters that live on beyond the page. Or is there? 

Yes, actually there is. Knowing that people have really enjoyed reading it, on balance, probably just has the edge.  (It is a shame that one of a writer’s rare vicarious pleasures has been removed at a stroke by the advent of eReaders – the chance sighting of some stranger on a plane or train engrossed in your novel. I can confess here that I once missed my stop on the London underground because a fellow traveller was reading one of my novels and laughing out loud (with some obvious embarrassment) at the funny bits.) 

The moral of all this is that although it is clearly the writer’s job to create the best possible book they can, those of us who are readers also have some kind of a responsibility too. Not just to let the poor, socially deprived writer know that we have enjoyed their book, but also to tell other people, even to write a review. It’s a competitive world out there and we want our favourite writers to survive. Spreading the word is the best way to do it.

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