Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume One – How to write a Sentence

 

You might be looking at that deceptively simple title thinking, but everyone can write a sentence. Well, yes, illiteracy aside, everyone probably can. The point is to write a sentence that grips people and makes them want to read on. To write sentences that create sympathy between your audience and your characters. Used correctly sentences can alter the flow and rhythm of your prose, adjusting it to the correct pace.

This seminar was taught by Andrew Willie (www.willie.org). He is an experienced and enthusiastic copy editor, with a real knack for spotting good prose.

So to break things down to their constituents before we reassemble them;

Parts of speech

A noun – names a person, place, thing, idea, quality or action.

A verb – describes an action or a state (doing something, being something)

An adverb – usually describes a verb, or how, when, where or how much something is done.

An adjective – describes or limits a noun.

A pronoun – is used in place of a noun, to avoid repeating the noun. (She, him, it)

A conjunction – joins two words, phrases or sentences together (and, as, but)

A preposition – usually marks the relationship between nouns or pronouns (of, on, in, into, around, along)

An article – is used to introduce a noun. (a, the, an)

An Interjection – expresses emotion or surprise. Often followed by an exclamation mark. (Hurray!)

A participle – is a form of a verb that is used in a sentence to modify a noun or noun phrase, and thus plays a role similar to that of an adjective or adverb. (Singing, writing – present participle. Written, sung – past participle.)

So those are the parts of a sentence. How do you string them together?

The subject of a sentence is the person/animal/ thing which the sentence is about.

The predicate is what the subject does.

Eg; the cat (subject) sat on the mat (predicate)

The most interesting thing in a sentence is not the subject but what the subject is doing and why. Ideally you always want to scatter a breadcrumb trail of ‘why’ for your readers to follow. So that the read the next sentence and the one after that and the one after that.

In most cases the best way to do this is to avoid using the passive voice.

An example of the active voice would be ‘the cat sat on the mat.’

In passive voice it might read ‘the mat was sat on by the cat.’

The passive voice is less gripping, less interesting. It doesn’t convey action in the same way. However there is a place for the passive voice. If for example you wee setting a scene where there was about to be a lot of action, you might start with some passive voice to lull your reader into a false sense of security or to even out pace. If time has been spent setting up an event the passive voice provides contrast.

Eg. The mat was sat on by the cat. The mat exploded.

Also passive voice is useful if you are extending sentences.

Eg the mat was sat on by the cat, where he then went and shat. (Sorry that was the class example.)

For more information, try the guardian essays by Phillip Pullman and Phillip Gardner.

A few other things to consider;

You can use first person, second person or third person but second person is harder to read and much harder to sell.

Present or past tense – either is fine but in general most people write better in past tense. A notable exception is Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, where the present tense adds to the tension.

I’ll leave you with the same quote Andrew left us with;

‘A first draft is just a writer telling himself the words of the story.’ Sir Terry Pratchett.

Recommended reading; Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale (which is on my kindle but I haven’t read it yet. Must get on that!)

Thanks for reading. If you missed this class, I hope the above notes helped. 😉

 

Throwback Thursday: A Perfect Dystopia

(First published on my old blog, 24th October 2013)

One of my favorite forms of genre fiction is dystopian fiction. The word Dystopia is of greek origin, coming from two words meaning ‘hard land’. It was used in answer to Thomas Moore’s coined term ‘Utopia’ from the book of the same name. While a Utopian world is an idealised version of our own, a dystopian world takes the darker aspects of human nature and examines them. This is what I find endlessly fascinating.

Dystopian societies may be anti-utopian, in other words taking the worst of human behavior and setting, and magnifying them. Or it may be Counter-Utopian – presenting a society which is Utopic on the surface, with one fatal flaw. The latter is the one I find most interesting. Just as a character’s fatal flaw may help drive the plot of a book or film, a society or races fatal flaw may do the same in dystopian fiction. As unsettling as much of it is, I think dystopian fiction allows us to look at ourselves, at our current society and ask ourselves ‘is this where we are heading?’ There are often strong moral conflicts involved, revolutions and uprising against a totalitarian regime or subtler struggles for public hearts and minds or even just a pocket of resistance clawing out some space to think for themselves; all of which is right up my literary alley.

Here are some of my favorites, try not to laugh at the first few;

The Stand by Stephen King –  ok so many people would class this as a horror story. For me, despite it’s opposing poles of good and evil, it is a huge tome set in a dystopian future (though technically we’ve gone way past the year it is set in.) A human designed plague has been released killing 99.9% of the worlds population. It has caused society to grind to a halt while those survivors who happened to be immune try to find each other and reestablish some sort of working civilisation. The thing with plague killing off the populous is that it has not destroyed buildings, power plants, supplies, weapons etc. They are all waiting to be picked up and used. Add to that a force for goodness and a force for evil fighting over the scraps of mankind. This is self examination in it’s rawest form in many ways. Not all of the people who followed the dark man were wholly bad, not all of those who went to Mother Abigail were entirely good. Everyone is caught up in something bigger than themselves and not just the plague. It  is the choices you make in those situations that make this so interesting.
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Watership Down – Richard Adams. – Yes I know it’s about bunnies. I still maintain that there’s a case for it being included in dystopian fiction. Fiver the seer, knows that  bad danger is coming to the Sandleford warren, with his brother Hazel and several other rabbits they manage to leave before, what would be to them, a catclymic world altering event occurs, killing all the others. Struggling to find a place in the world they stumble on Cowslip’s warren. This is a false Utopia, as it turns out all the rabbits there, while never hungry or worrying about enemies, are being kept safe and fat for when the farmer wants to catch a couple. The whole area is snared. And yet the rabbits of that warren make believe that they serve the shining wire, that death chooses them. Hazel’s group moves on and eventually finds Watership Down. It’s near perfect except that they have no does, without which their ociety will die out in a generation. Finding the Efrafra warren, a true totalitarian regime, where you are perfectly safe as long as you don’t disobey orders and live in (for rabbits) unnatural conditions, Hazel’s group effects a daring plan to break away a group of does to join them. The final battle for the survival of their own warren is against the dictator General Woundwort – possibly the scariet rabbit ever.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – The World State controls almost everything, it is all surprisingly peaceful, a stable society with plentiful goods and supplies. Natural birth has been done away with. Children are instead created and raised in hatcheries where they are conditions and separated into five caste systems. Citizens are conditioned to value consumption above all else. All need for transcendent, spiritual experience is managed by the state with Soma – a hallucinogenic approved for ‘holidays’. Recreational sex is encouraged. So with everything provided for you and everything figured out for you, where is the reward of thinking for yourself? What is there to strive for?

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury – there’s a lot more to it that this but books are outlawed and burned as they promote free-thinking. This is literally my personal hell on earth.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell – not so much a favorite as a must read. After a global atomic war (so set in obvious dystopian landscape) we follow the story of Winsten Smith, who is at intellectual war with The Party and has an illicit romance with Julia. His consequent imprisonment, interrogation, torture and reintegration are chilling.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood – read this first when I was 16 and was horribly struck by how possible it seemed. A christianity based theocratic regime rules everything after a global disaster. Few women have viable ovaries. Those who do are re-educated and sent out as handmaids to bear children for members of congress. The ritualistic adultary  in which the wife takes part, rendering the handmaid merely a womb for hire while the husband inseminates her is truly horrific. The ambiguity at the end is disturbing but right for the story, especially as one of the themes of the book is not knowing.

The Chrysalids – John Wyndham – possibly my absolute favorite. Man is made in a specific image, people are conditioned by a cut off, theocratic state, not to succour the mutant. Something as simple as being born with an extra toe can get you forcibly serilised and sent into the barren lands. But what about mutations that don’t show? A group of children develop a kind of telepathy which is found out and abhorred as a mutation. Their struggle is to find somewhere they can live un-persecuted. It is suggested that this mutation is actually one of nature, rather than nuclear fallout. So the question is how far will society go to control natural gene expression?

Pure – Julianna Baggott – in a post nuclear/ dirty bomb society, there are the pure, who live within the dome – seemingly perfect lives. And the aberrants who have eked out an existence outside the dome. As the politics unfolds it turns out that there is less perfection inside the dome than the imperfect aberrants think. There is also a question on just who set the bombs – surely not their own government on a mission of enthnic cleansing, attempting to set up their own superior race?

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins – I don’t care what anyone says about this being ripped off from ‘Battle Royale’. I don’t believe it is but even if it was, Collins took an idea and portrayed it a hundred times better. Deal with it. What the series looks at is what war really does to society, in particular, to children. The twelve districts of panem are controlled with a constant mix of fear, oppression, hardship, humiliation and a tiny insidious but of hope. Every year each district is forced to provide a male and female child tribute to compete in the games, where they are expected to fight to the death. A pretty good analogy for the pointlessness of war considering the arbitrariness of the  rules and what the games turn the children into.

There are dozens more books that cover various themes in a dystopian world. This is merely a small selection of my favorites. The attraction does not simply relate to reading either, I enjoy writing dystopian fiction. The themes it explores are close to my heart, questions that must be asked over and over in order to avoid such dark futures ourselves.

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume one – Plot and Character

(First Published on my old blog, 28th October 2013)

By now I wouldn’t blame you if you were thinking, ‘just how long can she go on about York FoW13? It was a month ago!’ And you’d be right in as far as no amount of blog posts can recapture the experience of going yourself. That said, I did learn some quantifiable skills with regard to writing so I’m passing them along. Think of it as a taster in case you decide to go to York FoW yourself one day. (Also I have a quota of posts to fill this month. Don’t worry though – there’ll only be a maximum of two more York rambles.)

Jeremy Sheldon (who taught ‘Lovers and Buddies’) also covered this seminar on plot and character. Strong storytelling, hinges on one or both of these elements. If you ask an agent what they are looking for, they will nearly always reply ‘strong storytelling’, that’s if they’re not replying with ‘voice’ or ‘style’. What they don’t do, is explain what they mean by this. What is a strong story? What is Voice or Style? Aside from a technical description,  which is about as much use as someone telling you that a light bulbs blown but then refusing to tell you where the light bulbs are, no one can really say. I think in part this is because they mean different things to different people, but also t seems to be jut one of those things. You can’t put your finger on it to describe it to someone, but everyone knows when it’s not there.

However, all is not lost. If you look at plot and character in enough detail, chance are that you’ll build a strong story anyway. With voice and style. So, plot and character, is there a difference? Yes and no. It depends entirely on your point of view. Personally I think some narratives are more plot driven and some are more character driven. The best narratives, in my book, are both. The only person whose opinion matters there is the writer’s. Having said that, while you may prefer plot over character, or vice versa, in order to build a strong story you cannot consider them entirely disconnected. A character without a plot is just  collection of vices, virtues and mannerisms, all dressed up with no where to go. A plot without a character, is a fantastic stage set without actors.

“Tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of the action not of narration; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” Aristotle.

Basically, Aristotle argues that in Tragedy, plot is more important than character. (He later goes on to say that in Comedy, character is more important than plot.) Actually I’m not sure I entirely agree. While it is important to ellicit an emotional response in your reader, surely one of the best ways of doing this is building a bridge of sympathies between your characters and your reader? Yes plot is important in tragedy – the events in Romeo and Juliet or Oedipus have to follow the set sequence or the gradual upping of the stakes and dawning horror of the situation, just won’t happen. I’d be inclined to say that it was just as important rather than more important though. But then Aristotle would have said I am emotionally un-house broken due to my hair colour so…

Anyway, within a plot you have the writers perspective and the readers perspective. They should ultimately dovetail and that’s what you need to bear in mind when plotting;

The Writer;

Story = Crucible of invented human activity – affected by time and causality – resulting in The Final Outcome.

The Reader;

Story = investment of time   –      leading to Reader Expectation – resulting in, Reader Investment Confirmed.
(sense of place, dialogue
writing etc)

In other words you can’t suddenly throw in bits and pieces and bend your plot to suit yourself without going back and sowing the seeds of suspicion. Think Chekov’s Gun. If you are going to use the gun in the third act, then it should be visible on the wall in act one. Not I said visible not necessarily blindingly obvious. Readers like to have their suspicions confirmed; it makes the book feel like a friend. Readers do not like being cheated or misled through laziness – do that enough times and the reader will put the book down. Remember you are the tour guide of your created world, it is your job to make the reader feel that you know what you are doing and will take care of them, otherwise they won’t feel like they are in a safe pair of hands.

Story should not contain any filler. So anything that does not build your plot or your characters has to go. We all know what it’s like with a first draft; there are place holders, half names, undecided bits. That’s fine. The finished product needs to have been on the mother of all Rocky style training montages so that it’s a lean beast, not a flabby, soft read.

Basic Structure (which you can adapt at your leisure.)

-Set Up (scene setting/ world building/ character introduction)
-1st turn – hamartia or fatal flaw. This is where the story stops telling what it’s about and starts being what it’s about.
– Development, Character tries to achieve goal, but is thwarted, often repeatedly.
– Mid point – Character starts to break through/ make progress, but isn’t there yet.
– Crescendo – protagonist is making greater step toward goal. Antagonist counters more strongly.
– Crisis – everything appears to be going wrong / unsavable
– Recognition and reversal – the protagonist recognises their fatal flaw and reverses it.
– Climax – protagonist triumphs (or not, depends if last point occurs in time!)

In a tragedy the protagonist is unable to recognise their hamartia or reverse damage, at least not in time. Eg King Lear, Macbeth, Chasing Amy, Red State

In a comedy the protagonist recognises their fatal flaw and reverses it in time for a happy ending. Eg Much ado about nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones

Character and Flow
– the flaw should appear unconsciously (to the protagonist) in the set up
– mid point plot break through is the first moment of real character insight. Significant step towards goal.
– Crisis – the self realisation and plot all go pear shaped. Character has not yet reversed his flaw.
– Character has to engage with changing on a positive level, turning the flaw into an asset.

With regard to hamartia or fatal flaw, it may be conscious or unconscious (usually the former is better.) It is a deep character weakness. It is also often the same as a character’s greatest strength. How self aware the character is and what use he puts that quality towards is what defines it as a flaw. For example the film As Good As it Gets – the MC has massive OCD issues coupled with social ineptitude. On the other hand he notices things, everything that other people take for granted. By the end of the film he’s learned to use the positive aspects of his OCD, namely noticing and anticipating, and controlling the negative aspects, the desire to control everything and push people away.

Or to use a personal exmple, in WIP my MC is incredibly resilient. She endures and doesn’t allow things to flatten her. She keeps going. The fatal flaw is that she doesn’t trust anyone to help her, she is to independant. She pushes people away and becomes isolated during a very dangerous sequence of event. Does she recognise and reverse this? Well if I ever get any where you’ll have to read it for yourself and find out 😉

Thanks for reading!

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume one : The Sci-Fi Master Class

(First published on my old blog, 18th October 2013)

High time I continued with my York FoW13 chronicles. Only a fairly short one tonight, as this was one seminar where I think you had to be there.

Gary Gibson, well known science fiction author of Angel Stations and Stealing Light (amongst others), took the Sci-Fi master class seminar. While Zi highly recommend attending this seminar yourself if this is in your area of interest, here are some of the things I found most interesting.
Sci-Fi has been written for a long time (if you include ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley, it’s been written for hundreds of years.) Early authors include H G Wells and Jules Verne. The interesting point the Gary made was that you need 20th century understanding to make sense of sci-fi. Actually I agree. Partly because science needs to have emerged as something respectable from the esoteric studies it, and maths, were once part of. Partly because advances in scientific knowledge have allowed more and more plausible plots, no matter how far fetched, due to greater understanding. And partly because the human psyche needed to be less ruled by religious doctrine, of whatever flavor. That’s no slight to personal faith, it’s just that science and religion are in the uncomfortable, not-quite-friends-but-trying, post break-up phase.
In the last 100 years there has been a huge race of scientific progress. We are now at the tipping point of literally being overtaken by our own technology. (And yes I do find that a bit scary – I worry that we’ll lose an essential part of our humanity or at least humane-ness if we carry on without thought.) Anyway, as Gary Gibson said, science fiction is a way of questioning and making sense of this.
Originally after masters such as H G Wells had retired from the field, sci-fi became very sloppy. Pulp books were turned out very quickly with little thought, plot or research involved. Now there’s nothing wrong with something written purely to entertain – even OK magazine has found its audience after all. (Can’t for the life of me imagine why but I guess I’m not part of their target demographic.) However the knock on effect of so much crap sci-fi being published in the early 20th century, was a lingering belief that all sci-fi (and fantasy) was crap. This is clearly not so – think of Dune by Frank Herbert or Brace New World by Aldous Huxley or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood – however it is a stigma that has stuck, which is why there those who give you ‘the look’ if you say you write sci-fi or fantasy today.
All we can do is continue to write amazing sci-fi until the nasty, junk food taste of early sci-fi pulp is a dim memory.
Within Sci-Fi/ fantasy there are many sub-genres; slipstream, steam punk, cyber punk, dystopian, space opera, hard sci-fi to name but a few. They are all equally relevant dispute their different approaches. It all comes down to personal taste. Ultimately you should write what you love. I won’t tell the story Gary told, about his friend who lives a nomadic existence between sofas so he can write about dwarves hitting things with axes, because it’s not my story to tell. It is well worth hearing though. Ultimately it points at the fact that if you really want to write, you will make it happen. As my friend said to Gary Gibson, after a seminar ‘it was the most laid back motivational speech ever.’ From the look on his face I believe he took it as a compliment. 😉
So where do we go as writers of sci-fi?
Firstly read widely in the genre and research! You can be excused scientific ignorance if its something we haven’t discovered yet or if you hang your story on a theory that is disproved in twenty years time. You will not be allowed such lassitude if you make a gaff due to lazy research.
The example Gary quoted, was the ubiquitous asteroid field. In a lot of sci-fi films asteroid belts are deadly places full of whirling rock and space debris, ventured into only by the most fool hardy and navigated only by the bravest and most skilled. In actual fact, to hit anything in an asteroid field, you’d have to be trying pretty damn hard as there is no gravitational pull and the asteroids don’t move! We all love ‘Empire Strikes Back’, but we’ll have to assume that in that galaxy far far away, different laws of physics apply. It couldn’t be that George Lucas didn’t do his research…
Ultimately, whenever you write something that requires more than the usual suspension of disbelief, the mundane details must be as realistic as possible. Even if you are writing about a sentient, alien race as MCs, you must find an emotional level on which your readers can engage and empathize with them.
Another thing to consider, is that it’s rare for sci-fi and fantasy to crossover in a bookshop. They might do in real life, in the book. Alien is more of a space horror, Handmaid’s Tale is definitely literary. But as targeting for an audience, you particularly need to know where your book will sit in a book shop. Where will your fans go to find your book? There was one lad in several of the same seminars as me, who argued hotly against being pigeon holed. His book crossed seven genres equally. You know what that’s fine. But you can’t sell it in a book shop like that. You’re unlikely to be able to sell it to an agent. Exactly how are they supposed to sell it to a publisher? ‘Its a sci-fi horror fantasy steam punk space opera with literary overtones and magical realism.’ It might very well be but no one will buy it like that. Pick the main genre and maybe one or maximum, two crossover genres and describe it like that.
(A note here, never, as an author describe your book as being literary or containing magical realism. These are terms applied by agents and publishers. Saying that as an author makes you appear arrogant and is a distinctly unpopular move in the publishing world. What if you’re wrong? You’ve completely discredited yourself in five seconds flat. Stick to a more general description and let the professionals sing your praises.)
And the last point but the most important; those who succeed as writers are those who are writers first and anything else second. This doesn’t mean chaining yourself to your lap top or ignoring your spouse but cultivate the mindset that you are a writer, whether or not you are paid for your labors yet.
If you ever get the chance to go and listen to Gary Gibson, I highly recommend it; thoroughly nice bloke and very entertaining and down to earth.
Perhaps that’s the secret; if you’re writing about happenings amongst the stars, your feet need to be firmly on this planet first.

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume One – Slushpile hell to Slushpile heaven

(First published on my old blog, 12th October 2013)

 

Right, after my lazy attempt last night, I feel I should deliver some substance today so here is the next installment in my York FoW13 chronicles.
This seminar was run by the lovely Julia Churchill and Penny Holroyde (both well known agents). It focused on what you can do to make your manuscript stand out of the slush pile, giving you the best chance of being picked up by an agent. As I said in an earlier post, agents are serious book lovers (and don’t have horns) so don’t go in with the attitude that they are your enemy, out to prevent your book from connecting with its audience.

It was extremely interesting and heartening to get the take of two agents on this. They didn’t talk about specific genres – why would they? It’s not their job to write the book. That’s our job! But there are special annoyances to avoid when submitting your manuscript to an agent. I’m going to list what I gleaned from this seminar but I will mention Nicola Morgan at this point. She is a published author and self-styled ‘crabbit old bat’, who writes brilliant, helpful posts on how to get published on her blog. I strongly recommend checking this out before you submit anything, I found her advice really helpful in preparing for York.

Ok then, hints, tips and other gleanings;

– Finish the book! Do not submit your manuscript until it is finished. I heard a lot of agents say this over the course of the weekend. Nothing is more annoying to them than reading the first three chapters of something, loving it, calling up the author asking to see the rest – only to have the author say ‘ oh, but I haven’t written that yet. Can you wait?’ Well yes they might wait and they might still want to see the rest of the manuscript when you’re done but the chances that they are still going to be as excited about it, as they were when they first read it are very slim. If you write non fiction, sample chapters, an outline, synopsis and CV are fine. If it’s fiction then finish it first! Remember, though publishing moves slowly, agents and publishers actually move very fast; they have to in order to be a step ahead of various literary fairs and book lists.

One at a time.   Perhaps you’re massively prolific in your writing or the planets have aligned and filled you with strange energies so you have finished off half a dozen novels that have been lying around in various states of undress for some time. Pick one and submit. The others have to wait their turn. You might be really good and highly marketable but if you bombard an agent with submissions you’re likely to get a no, just so you’ll leave them alone.

Do your homework. Make a list of possible agents, checking into them a bit to see if you think you’d like to work with them. These agents should be people you want to work with and they should handle books in your genre. The ‘pray and spray’ approach to submissions, rarely works. If you send your historical romance to an agent who only deals with  yachting biographies then the answer will be ‘no’ and everyone has wasted time.

Formatting. Most agents have a list of formatting guidelines with their submissions policy. Read them. If you don’t, you are going to appear either lazy, as if you haven’t checked out the agent (which by the way the agent expects) or that you don’t bother to read. None of that is attractive to an agent. Most agents nowadays use Kindles to read submissions. So don’t send PDFs as they are illegible on kindle. Title your files clearly – if an agent has two dozen files on a kindle and eighteen of them are titled ‘sample chapters’, she is going to read the one titled with the books name first. Remember, when the files are loaded onto a kindle, only a certain amount of the title appears in the list. So if you title something ‘sample chapters; [title of your book]’ then the only bit that appears is ‘sample chapters’.

Submitting you MS. Have a great title; they’ve seen a lot of it before. A great title makes them more likely to pick up your book first. In the covering letter, use a reasonable sized one paragraph pitch. Include a bit about yourself. Agents are interested in building careers not just one book, if they are thinking about representing you, you will probably be asked what you’re working on now. Agents don’t really care about previous publishing credits. They don’t need a CV of published short stories. Ultimately they want good debut authors.

Resubmissions and Replies. Yes you might get a rejection. Everyone does at some point. What you never ever ever do under any circumstances, is write a rude reply to the agent. We saw some in the seminar and I felt horrified and embarrassed for the people who sent them. Publishing is actually a fairly small world and they DO all talk to each other. On the other hand if you’ve done significant work on your MS and really feel you’ve improved it (especially if you got a ‘no thanks but think about looking at this’ sort of reply) then it’s encouraged to resubmit to the same agent. Agents usually only leave feedback if they are interested in your book – they are not a critiquing service. So don’t expect some in a reply. And don’t be a pest. Your MS is getting read. They can’t take the chance that a gold nugget is getting swept away in the pile of rocks. Four weeks is about the right time to send a friendly inquiry about your sample chapters. Six weeks, if they’ve asked to see the whole MS.

Finally, here are the Submission Bootcamp Dos and Don’ts;

– ‘I have submitted this to a handful of carefully selected agents but will of course inform you…’ Big don’t. In reality agents know that you can’t submit to them one at a time but highlighting it at the sample chapter stage is foolish. At worst it smacks of trying to force their hand.

– Don’t use silly email addresses; agents want to know they are dealing with someone professional.

– Do drop the names of authors on their lists that you admire. This doesn’t mean saying that you are the next Philip Pullman, but you can say ‘would appeal to fans of Philip Pullman’ about your work. Also showing that you know who an agent represents proves you’ve done your homework about them.

– Don’t include copyright pages. What you’re saying when you do this, is that you don’t expect an agent to act professionally. And of course your MS is copyright protected. The minute you write it and send it (even if you only email it to yourself) it’s under copyright.

– Do re-submit

– Don’t submit unfinished manuscripts.

– Don’t request a receipt on your email. Agents hate this kind of trickery!

– Don’t direct an agent o dropbox, Yousendit, a link or amazon.

– Don’t lie. Ever. They will find out. They are spooky like that.

– Do mention if you’ve met the agent before.

– Do highlight if it’s a resubmission, but this isn’t essential.

– Do submit your next book, even if the first is rejected. They still want to see what you write.

And there you have it. Much of it is business courtesy but these are all important  points. Remember. it’s just as big a deal for the agent to call an author and offer to represent them, as it is for the author to receive that call!

Throwback Thursday:Tales of York, Volume One – Lovers, Buddies and the Tragedy Paper.

(First published on my old blog, 7th October 2013)

The first seminar I attended at York FoW13, was ‘Lovers and Buddies; 7 steps to friendship and romance’, by Jeremy Sheldon. I’d never been to a writing seminar of any kind before. In fact any seminars I usually attend have horrifying medical slide shows attached, so this was not only new and interesting but quite restful as well. The added benefit is that I learned a lot.

I won’t give you a direct transcription of my notes. That would be extremely dull. However I will attempt to sift through them for the bits that struck me most and compare and contrast it with a similar set of guidelines which I used in A-level English, in a critical essay on Shakespeare. Ok, that already sounds dry. I promise this won’t be. The best thing about this seminar, was it’s versatility. As soon as you’ve clocked the main points, you can apply them to any story shape in any medium you like and it still works.

So what do romantic relationships, friendships and tragedies have to do with one another? Surely they are three different scenarios? Well no not really. They follow a very similar pattern of occurrences in roughly the same time frame. It’s really the actions of the characters and the outcomes that make the difference.

The seven steps;

1) The meet-cute (in movie terms). Quite literally the point where the two characters in that relationship dynamic meet. Think Romeo and Juliet dancing at that party or Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy NOT dancing at the ball at Mereton. Or if you want to think friendship how about Murtagh jumping Riggs in the police station before he knew that was his new partner (classic buddy cop) or Luke Skywalker meeting Han Solo in the Mos Eisley bar. (Yes I know they weren’t alone. And yes, Han shot first *sigh*) It doesn’t have to be main characters meeting up either. If a friendship or romance is a sub plot then you would have those character meeting up for the first time. Or at least at a significant time when the relationship is about to change.
Tragedy wise it’s much the same – Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader for the first time and fighting him unaware that he is fighting his father. The only family he has left and they’re mortal enemies (ok there’s Leia but they don’t know they’re related yet…) Or Irish folktale CuChullain fighting and killing Conlai only to find out he’s killed his son. (Admittedly in that case, the entire story would be the fight but I’ll get back to that.)

2) Dislike/ Attraction – there is a strong feeling between the two characters. Aside from Romeo and Juliet, all the examples I’ve listed above started out disliking each other. That’s possibly because I find that dynamic of overcoming pre-conceptions and learning to like someone or even fall in love with them, endlessly fascinating. Either way, they can’t be indifferent to each other, or they won’t progress to step three.

3) Complications – the reasons that a pair of characters can’t be together or can’t be friends (or in tragedy sense, can’t overcome their burgeoning mutual enmity.) Darcy is far too proud to consider Elizabeth and therefore doesn’t see her clearly. Elizabeth is thoroughly put off Darcy firstly by his bad behavior and later by the tales Mr Wickham spins her. They can’t be together because they create barriers. In addition there are also barriers of class, money and social convention to overcome. Those sort of barriers are only beaten by a pair of characters if they are pulling together, which Darcy and Elizabeth aren’t. On top of this, they are continually thrown into each others company. If they hadn’t been, it’s possible that one unpleasant encounter at a dance at Mereton might have been the whole story.

4) Increased purpose for being – whether they initially were attracted or disliked each other, the presence of the other, causes an increased will for life in a character. The very thing that attracts Darcy is the way Elizabeth laughs him off, managing to deliver some impertinent remarks in such a way that they don’t give offence but make him stop and think. From a tragical POV, take Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. They are on a collision course from day one. Both are directly in the way of what the other wants and both want the other out of the way. There is an increased sense of purpose in both characters. Neither can rest until the other is dead. It’s not given to everyone to have one great enemy, anymore than it is to have one great love. In both cases it brings out the best and worst in a character. (I’ll admit that Harry Potter isn’t exactly a tragedy but I’m trying to choose random tragical elements.)

5) Alignment – the characters fall in to line with the discovery that they want the same thing. However, how they achieve this is still up for debate; they are not aligned in their opinions. In simplest terms Darcy discovers that he wishes to marry for love, a belief that Elizabeth has held already. They are not agreed on who is to marry whom! Harry and Voldemort are in one accord that one of them must die, neither of them agree which of them it should be – unsurprisingly. In a friendship perspective, Murtagh and Riggs are working together to solve the case, but neither agree on the others methods. It’s about prolonging conflict. Sometimes a big conflict, sometimes something small that can blow up completely, making the whole relationship look un-salvageable.

6) Crisis – This would be the point where that difference of opinion causes a moment where everything looks like it’s going wrong and can’t be saved. This is the darkest moment, the lowest point on the character journey. For example Jane Eyre discovers on her wedding day that Mr Rochester the groom, has a wife still living, shut up in the attic. In despair she runs away and nearly dies of exposure (which still seems a bit daft to me but I’m willing to forgive much as I love the book and I admire anyone who really sticks to their principles.) At that point there is no way for them to be together. This is usually where there is a huge argument in the friend plot line – all the things that annoy them about each other come out in the most hurtful way possible. In the tragedy sense the climax is the worst becoming worse. Think Romeo killing Tibault, after Tibault kills Mercutio under Romeo’s arm. Then think the message to Romeo getting delayed by a plague blockade but word of Juliet’s death reaching him, followed by Romeo drinking poison moments before Juliet wakes up.

7) Resolution and Surrender – this is the ‘I’ve got you’ moment. Reconciliation between lovers. They acknowledged their flaws and learnt from them. Elizabeth realises that she should have given Darcy more of a chance and not formed her opinion based on a second hand report. Darcy having had time to think over Elizabeth’s telling off, realises that he’s not behaved well and sets out to do better, proving to her that he’s worth a second chance. Harry faces death and comes through, wiser and now unafraid. Voldemort still fears death so much that he cannot comprehend anything but defying it. Harry, having recognised his flaws and reversed them triumphs, whereas Voldemort destroys himself. Or for tragical purposes, Juliet recognises that everything has gone wrong and comes to the same conclusion as Romeo; that she doesn’t want to live on without him. The characters are aligned still even if they don’t have a happy ending. Murtagh has gained a new appreciation for his seemingly dull life from his friendship with Riggs. Riggs has someone to care about and who cares about him and now wants to live, he’s overcome his death wish.

So those are the seven steps. You can look at almost any film or book and identify them quite easily. There are exceptions in the sense of a defeat being joyful. The English Patient for example. In the romance sense, love becomes a choice rather than a need or obligation. Two characters enter into it willing to be emotionally vulnerable with each other. They shed the emotional armor they’re carrying. Love in itself is a kind of surrender.

So, other things to look out for;

Hubris or fatal flaw – the one thing in a character’s make up that prevents them from achieving their goal.

Magnitude – at some point a decision will be made, the consequences of which overshadow the rest of the story. The story becomes about dealing with those consequences.

Recognition and reversal – a character must recognise and reverse or mitigate his fatal flaw in order to achieve his goal. Or if it’s a tragedy must not recognise it, or recognise it too late. Think King Lear, realising and admitting that he was wrong about youngest daughter, Cordelia, just before they are all executed.

These are the ingredients of all really good, enduring character relationship plot lines. I had come across some of them before but it was an eye opener to take them and apply them to more modern film and literature. I haven’t incorporated the entire seminar but I think this is enough of the gist. It’s definitely helped make my decisions regarding character reactions much more conscious and deliberate.

Tales of York, Volume one: A Distinct lack of Brimstone

(First published on my old blog, 4th October 2013)

From the title, I’m sure you can guess I’m continuing my York memoirs 😉 In this instance I want to talk about agents.

If you read my earlier York post, you’ll know that I was very nervous about going due to my ineptitude at talking about my writing. Since I’d booked two one-to-one sessions with agents to find out how marketable my book is, I was definitely jittery about the whole thing.
In my naivity, I booked both ten minute sessions back to back. A bit of description for anyone who hasn’t tried this; there are small tables with two chairs facing each other across them, set up slightly like a prison visiting area as seen on many TV shows. There are lots of these little capsules of literary intrigue within a single open room. There are also lots of one-to-ones taking place at the same time.
Timing is strict. You have ten minutes from the buzzer; a one minute warning at nine minutes; then you have to clear off when the buzzer sounds again. It is insane, manic speed dating with far more riding on it than the conventional kind. You’ve already picked who you’ll see and you want them to be invested in your work.
To backtrack a bit, six weeks in advance, you send 3000 words of your manuscript, a synopsis and a covering letter. The agent (or publisher or book doctor) will read this and make notes prior to the event.
Scary stuff, huh?
On how many other occasions are you asked to pitch straight in, talking about something really personal and close to your heart and make a connection?
Of course the aim isn’t necessarily to acquire an agent that day – though some do ask to see the full manuscript. The aim is to make a connection as a basis for future contact and to find out if what you write is marketable. If so, what do you need to improve.
So, first proper day at York, 10.30am Saturday morning, with my courage grasped tight in both sweat-slick hands and my heart, lungs and stomach clinging to each other in my throat, I went to meet the Kraken.
This is a very unfair description but that is what it feels like. Happily for me, both of my appointed agents were lovely. It was incredibly hard to pitch my book, despite all the preparation I had done. I had one horrible moment with the first agent, where I opened my mouth and nothing came out. She had asked me what my book was about. I sat there for thirty endless seconds thinking ‘I can’t remember!’ Then my brain clunked into gear and my ongoing love for the story took over. She even said my pitch was good!
Both agents said that they thought my idea was highly marketable and would appeal to a wide readership. They then preceded to explain what I needed to work on. All in all it wasn’t that bad at all. I’d caught a glimmer of interest.
It’s incredibly heartening as well as useful to have feedback from an agent. They do know what will sell after all. I would say that if you are not good with taking critique or feedback you won’t get so much out if it. These are professional book lovers who know the market. If they tell you that you’re over writing, you probably are! As with all criticism though, it should be divided in to ‘accept’, ‘adapt’ or ‘reject’ categories. Agents have preferences too and aren’t right about everything. ( though I have to say they were bang on the money about me and what I needed to do.)
Curiously light headed and seriously high on adrenaline I toddled off to a seminar and let it all sink in.
It was weird. All those agents and not a whiff of brimstone. Could it be that they were book lovers plus ten? I’m a rabid reader (I’d say avid but it just isn’t strong enough) but I’d never pushed myself into the arena of trying to make literature appear (unless you count writing.) for a moment I had a glimmer of what being an agent must be like. If you love books, it must seem like being Indiana Jones in a slush pile; the greatest treasure hunt ever. Exciting but I don’t believe I could ever do it. Just that mad speed dating once a year must take it out of you. All those hopeful authors, most of home you will have bad or indifferent news for…emotionally exhausting in the extreme. Add to that the fact that some writers can be so precious about their work that they only want to hear ‘Yes’. So it might be close to good but they don’t want to hear about improving it. That’s go to be maddening too.
I was to find out later in the day that some writers send unpleasant even abusive emails when their work is rejected. I read some of them in a seminar I went to that afternoon (personal details removed of course). My jaw hit the desk. Who in their right mind thought sending these was going to make an agent reconsider? I won’t repeat them but rude was an understatement.
And in case anyone wasn’t clear, nasty letters to an agent are a big no-no. And they do remember you. Also, all agents talk. It’s a small world, publishing. I’m just saying…
At the gala dinner that evening, fortified with half a glass of champagne, I screwed up my courage again and went to speak to another agent casually.
I did not do this to pitch my book. I had no intention of bringing it up at all. I wanted to have a chat as Id followed this person on twitter for a while and thought they were witty and clever. I’m not saying that I hadn’t considered submitting to them. I had. But my purpose was to scope them out in person. I was beginning to get an inkling of how important an agent you like and get on with is.
Which is what we talked about among other things. (For the record either I hid my nerves better than I thought or this person was just too lovely to comment on it. My hands were shaking.) It was a good chat. Even though the third thing U said was ” turns out agents don’t have horns!” Luckily this person had a sense of humour and got where I was coming from.
What I learned;
-Agents don’t have horns.
-They’re in it for the long haul. It’s not a case if them representing one book, they are looking to represent your developing career.
– An agent will turn down a perfectly sellable book if they don’t feel excited about it. This is not a reflection on the writing. It’s a case of them not feeling passionate enough about it to want to take it on. Isn’t that a good thing? If someone takes me on, I want to know they’re as excited about the journey as me.
– Agents are book lovers with market knowledge and contacts. It may seem like they have the power of life and death over an author’s career but actually that power never leaves a writer’s hands. We’re the ones who have to write good books after all.
– Agents are happy to see resubmissions of the same book if work has been done in it, especially if they left feedback when they rejected it the first time.
– Agents aren’t trying to be a barrier to your writing career. They need books to sell. In effect they need us as much as we need them.
– Agents do not care if you have previous writing credits or not. They want debut authors, they want careers they can help grow from the ground up. As one agent said, we’re always looking for the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown.
– an agent is usually being kind if they tell you something is unsellable. As horrible as that is to hear, it’s crueler to encourage false hope and have everyone waste time.
-Agents are human too. They don’t always get it right. If you believe in your book stick with it.
– Agents absolutely hate the idea of the one that got away. They do read your submissions. As professionals they may only need to read two paragraphs before they know that it’s not up to scratch or not for them. Take on the chin and move on.
All that from one 10min conversation. Worth screwing up my courage for methinks!
Perhaps I was lucky. I have heard other people say that they had a less positive or even negative experience with their one-to-ones. Since I wasn’t there I can’t comment. All I can say is that all the agents I met, were lovely, intelligent, discerning people who love books.
I’m feeling better about submitting my novel now. And I no longer expect to see horns 😉

Throwback Thursday: Harnessing Demons

(First published on my blog, 3rd October 2013)

I’m bouncing this post off of a conversation I had at York. A man I met on the first night was telling me about his crime novel. Naturally I won’t divulge details – for one thing that would be unspeakably rude. For another who wants to be pre-spoilified before it gets published? It might do yet.

The context was ‘how do you show something convincingly from a killer’s point of view?’ I think this is from  adhering to that old chestnut ‘write what you know’. Or if he was secretly a killer, he was very new to the task and wasn’t sure what he was doing yet. He had a point; how do you write convincingly, creating a fully fleshed three dimensional character, who has experiences and desires that you have never had and probably will never have? It isn’t exactly like you can just chat to a serial killer – might be ill advised to do so!

Well you can read about it. At worst your getting a report third or fourth hand. At best second hand. But he really wasn’t sure where to go from there. I think this is where the childhood game ‘let’s pretend’ comes in. When I played that as a child, I always wanted to be the bad guy. I wonder now if that was a precocious attempt to understand the dark aspects of my own nature? Who knows. It always seemed that the bad guy had a lot more fun and far fewer restrictions. I wasn’t put off by the fact that in children’s games at least, the bad guy always meets a bad end. That was a price of admission I was willing to pay for the freedom to be bad. It might be worth adding at this point that I was a supernaturally well behaved child with highly over developed senses of both guilt and empathy. It doesn’t take a psychologist to add those facts together.

Back to writing antagonists; my reply was simply that we all have these dark little creases in our souls and minds. Grubby places where our less admirable qualities fester and breed. Instead of ignoring them, we should own them and put them to use in a controlled way. In essence when you conquer your demons, don’t slay them. Hitch them up and put them to plough. Make them work for you. A book is one place where you can commit murder many times without actually harming anyone. Make the most of it.

I received a side long look for this piece of advice. No doubt I sounded far too enthusiastic and possibly four sneezes away from a killing spree myself. Which I’m not, obviously. I do stand by what I said. Everyone has some level of darkness inside them. No one is perfect or entirely good (I’ve met three people in my life who came close.) so why not tap into that when you write? Surely it will add a dimension to your ‘bad guys’ that you may not manage without it. Often a character seems unrealistic to me when they are all good or all bad. Good guys should have at least one flaw. And it should totally get in the way and cause them to make mistakes. Surely the reverse is true of bad guys? Shouldn’t they have at leas one redeeming feature? Something to stop them toppling like cardboard cutouts? I think so. Perhaps the people who write best, in the ened, are those who are willing to undergo the pain of knowing themselves. The bad as well as the good.

Dissecting Dragons – the first Guest Episode

I’ve talked about Dissecting Dragons, the speculative fiction podcast that M.E.Vaughan and I produce a bit before. However on Friday the first episode featuring a guest author was released and I feel it’s worth looking at the process in a bit more detail – not least of which because that episode has probably been our most successful one to date.

We’ve had lots of positive feedback about the podcast – people seem to genuinely be enjoying it, which is brilliant. As writers we all know how hard it is to judge your own work, so to have listeners comment or get in touch to say they like it is very encouraging. I will, in future, explain exactly how we are producing a podcast for those who fancy trying their hand at producing their own. (It’s always helpful to look at someone else’s process.)

So, first guest. James Nichol is a children’s author whose first book, The Apprentice Witch, is being published by the ChickenHouse. (To give you some context, he has been working with Barry Cunningham, the editor who discovered J.K.Rowling.) The book sounds utterly enchanting – I’m certainly looking forward to reading it myself when it is released in July 2016.

Dissecting Dragons - Writing, Reading, Loving and sometime Hating, Speculative Fiction.
Dissecting Dragons – Writing, Reading, Loving and sometime Hating, Speculative Fiction.

What made James a great guest was that he took an interest and engaged with the entire topic. And I think what allowed him to do that was that Madeleine and I had set things up so that we fell into a natural rhythm of conversation about that week’s topic. Between the three of us we produced some really interesting content. There was no sense of having to perform, either for James or for either of us. My theory is that it’s that relaxed atmosphere during which three authors discuss books and writing that makes it engaging for listeners.

Of course it definitely helps that James was interesting, engaging and humble about his achievements. Coupled with a sense of humour that has to be a winning combination for authors. I’ve mentioned before how hard many of us find it to talk about our work. Certainly publishers and editors both have said that they often feel that authors need to feel they’ve ‘been given permission’ to talk about their books. Could it be that a cosy chat via podcast is a way of breaking down this self imposed barrier? I have no firm conclusion on that but it’s definitely exciting times.

I highly recommend you listen to James story (not just because I want you to download the podcast) because it is as close to a ‘fairytale’ dream-come-true story of an author finding his publisher and his niche.

Dissecting Dragons – Episode 4 – Witches, Brooms and Spells with James Nichol

Dissecting Dragons Facebook page

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York: Volume One – Intimate Strangers

(First published on my old blog 2nd October 2013)

I’d hate to give anyone the wrong impression, so I’ll state now that while the title was a pleasing oxymoron for me and apt for this topic, I won’t be covering any erotica today – sorry about that 😉

September 2013 saw the University of York once again hosting the Festival of Writing. I was one part excitement to two parts bundle of nerves. It wasn’t just the thought of meeting agents for the first time ever (that actually deserves a blog of it’s own, so I won’t go into it here) it was the idea of meeting complete strangers and not so complete strangers (people I’d met and befriended via theWord Cloud) and talking about myself.

In a bizarre conjunction of personality traits, I’m quite happy public speaking, talking to strangers doesn’t bother me; I’ve stood in front of classes of 300 adult karate students and taught for 4 hrs with nary a twinge of nerves or the idea that, objecting to my gender, comparative youth and scrawniness, they might reckon me unable to teach them anything and rebel. (In point of fact they never did – I think it helps when you don’t question your own authority, maybe?)  Ask me to stand and talk about anything personal or more specifically anything close to my soul and suddenly all the shyness I thought I’d left behind in childhood crashes down on me. I like to think I’m fairly articulate. Ask me what my book is about and … blank.

Of course when you gather around 400 people together for a writer’s convention, the popular opening line is ‘What do you write?’ In fact that line is pretty much guaranteed to open up a whole vista of new acquaintance. Except that when I was asked that question I got as far as ‘Young Adult Urban Fantasy’ and then got stuck. I know exactly what my book is about. Of course I do. I worked hard on plot and themes and character – all that good stuff. I am just rubbish at selling myself. And consequently, not that good at pitching my book. There is hope however. This appears to be a skill you can learn.

When you think about it though, it’s not so weird to be overcome with shyness talking about your own writing. Aside from the fairly commonly held anxiety that what you write is probably pap that good trees shouldn’t die for, how often would you sit down to dinner or a drink with a stranger and bare your soul? Abruptly you find yourself in deep conversation on the finer points of part of your novel with someone who’s last name you don’t know. Might not ever know. You may not get around to talking about your husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, kids, pets… All the things that you would have talked to a really close friend about at some point. Usually before you got on to examining the deep seated dreams you’ve nourished in private for years. Because when writers talk shop, they really talk shop. So yes it is a strange intimacy.

Did I get over it? Well I still stumbled over discussing my work if the question came out of the blue at me. But by and large every time I did talk about my book, it got a bit easier. There is the horror movie theory of course; if you’ve seen the same horror film a hundred times it ceases to be scary. I probably did start a gentle process of surface desensitization. But there was so much more to it. For the first time everyone in the room, everyone I could possibly find myself in conversation with, was a book lover. Not necessarily my book, maybe not even my preferred genres. But we were all linked together by a love of the written word and a passion for creating it ourselves. In short, I’d found a niche I belonged in where I didn’t have to fight for space.

To para-phase Yuxin; In the heavens there is room for infinite stars to shine, with out one diminishing anothers brightness.

That was how I came to feel…within three hours of being at the festival. There were definite nervous moments but mostly it was a sense of coming home. The big realisation was that no one in that room was judging my writing as harshly as I was judging it. They all knew how hard it was. They all had the same fragile hopes.

In our daily lives I think we have lost, to some extent, that sense of communion as a group. It was wonderful and strange to discover something I wasn’t even aware I was looking for. It was even more wonderful that it was amongst writers I found it.