Are You Ready For Your Close Up?

I’ve just discovered how to embed a Kindle preview in my social media posts.  It’s a very useful addition to the self-publisher’s promotional arsenal, as, like the ‘Look Inside’ facility already offered by Amazon, it gives our readers a chance to sample our work before buying. This has got me thinking about those all-important first chapters and how they’ll stand up to this scrutiny, divorced, as they are, from the rest of the narrative. Is your work polished enough to withstand such a close up, critical examination?

The same rules are in operation as in the usual submission process, but how many of us who are going it alone actually apply them before hitting the ‘publish’ button?

I’ve read some pretty awful previews – bad punctuation, poor grammar, non-existent editing. You might think these things aren’t important any more, but if you’re hoping to attract a wide readership, with positive reviews, you should aim to tick as many of the boxes as possible. The professional services of editors and proofreaders might be beyond the budget of most self-publishers, but there’s still a lot we can do to help ourselves. We want to produce the best manuscript we can, which means paying attention to all the things mentioned above. Your story has the potential to be a best seller, a real page-turner, so you don’t want to turn prospective readers off before they’ve even started.

And that’s another thing – if you’re guilty of admitting, ‘the story doesn’t really get going until chapter six’, you need to take a long, hard look at the structure of your novel and consider starting it in a different place, such as a point of conflict, or where the action begins. A preview two or three chapters full of meandering, irrelevant material will not reveal your master plan or show off your story-telling skills to their best advantage. Tempt your readers in by laying a trail of tasty breadcrumbs that they can’t resist. 

I’m presuming that now you’ve reached the point of publication you’ve already got all your tenses agreeing, points of view sorted, spelling checked, punctuation and grammar perfected. But have one final read of your opening chapters with these questions in mind:

  • Do they entice the reader with a promise of a cracking good read?
  • Is there too much description? Be honest!
  • Does the reader know immediately whose story you are telling?
  • Are the characters too numerous for the reader to distinguish?
  • Are the introductions rushed, or too brief?
  • Are there too many adverbs/adjectives?
  • Is the story already too complicated? Or not interesting enough?
  • Does it start in the right place?
  • Is there too much irrelevant backstory?

It’s notoriously difficult to read your own work objectively, to look at it with new eyes and spot the problems that a dispassionate reader would notice immediately. But I promise you it will be a worthwhile exercise and result in a more engaging opening if you give those initial chapters a little more attention.

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10 Ways To Lose Your Readers

There’s a plethora of advice for out there for new writers about how to hook readers in, how to engage their interest and keep them turning the pages. Sympathetic and stimulating characters, a cracking plot, an unusual setting; they all appear on that list. But there’s not quite so much guidance for the new writer about what not to do.

In these days of easy self-publishing and downloads at the press of a button, it’s ever more difficult to get your voice heard above the clamour. It’s tempting to just get your work out there, in front of that very discerning audience.  But to avoid it sinking without trace, or worse, garnering the sort of reviews you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, it stands to reason that you should do all you can to avoid the pitfalls that will have readers pitching your book across the room and choosing some other novel, or, after reading a sneak preview online, not buying your book at all.

It’s surprisingly easy to turn readers off; sometimes it’s the tiniest things that will do it.

Getting the nuts and bolts right is as important as designing an attractive cover and creating an exciting and appealing story. To give your book the best possible chance it pays to be aware of the hazards, so here are my top ten mistakes that drive readers nuts:

  1. Poor Editing.

Whether you’re planning to pitch to agents and publishers or to go down the self-publishing route, you owe it to yourself to get your manuscript into the best possible shape. If you can’t afford a professional editor (sometimes you can find deals and special offers on the internet), at the very least get a trusted friend who is also a reader, to proofread it. A fresh pair of eyes will see things that slip by on a computer screen. They’ll also spot glaring holes in the plot, tense changes and non sequitors. Read your work aloud; you’ll hear clumsy sentence structure and clunky dialogue.

  1. Accuracy

If your facts are wrong, you’ll lose the trust of your readers. You can bend or ignore the truth to a certain extent to fit your story (it’s your novel, after all), but make sure you get the basics right. Readers notice everything and they will not forgive you for being lazy. Dates, places, events – somewhere, someone knows the truth. Don’t try to fool them. So, no $9 bills (yes, I’ve seen this in a story set in present day America), no driving from Cornwall to Norwich in two hours (not without the benefit of teleportation), and if you’re going to quote something familiar, make sure you get it right. On the television last night I heard someone say, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the eye.’(If you can’t see what’s wrong with this, go to the bottom of the class)

  1. Bad Grammar and Punctuation

It’s an insult to your readers if you can’t be bothered to sort out proper grammar and punctuation. It’s is a tricky area, as publishing styles change organically. Today the trend seems to be towards fewer commas, but you still need to know where they go. Ration your use of exclamation marks. In fact, erase them altogether; they’re the sign of an immature writer. As for apostrophes… make it your business to know where and why they apply.

  1. Too Many Characters too Soon

The introduction of your whole cast of characters in the first couple of pages will turn many readers off.  It’s a common complaint that too many names are difficult to take on board in one hit and readers don’t know who to ally themselves with. Who to be sympathetic towards? Who to love, who to hate? Who will disappear after the first chapter? If it’s too confusing, some readers won’t be prepared to invest their time trying to find out, and they’ll just give up.

  1. Mind Your Language

Some readers are offended by swearing, others don’t mind it. Some markets frown on it, others see it as an integral part of the story. It depends who’s reading, and in what context. You won’t find much bad language in a story for a women’s magazine, for instance, but thrillers and crime novels almost demand it. Be sensitive to your audience and don’t put swear words into a character’s mouth if they’d be unlikely to utter them.

  1. Bad Spelling

There’s no excuse for this. A spellchecker will do most of the heavy lifting, but you can’t rely solely on it. It won’t, for instance, pick up an error if it’s correctly spelled word used incorrectly, such as a homophone (words that sound the same but have different spellings) eg: to, too and two; witch and which; there, their and they’re. It’s up to you to make sure you check for basic errors. Use a dictionary.

 

  1. Getting Lost

Geography doesn’t figure a lot in most of our lives, until we read a novel that distorts the atlas, then all hell breaks loose. If your novel is set in an identifiable place, don’t mess around with the topography; someone is bound to notice and will delight in telling you, probably in a review. So if there isn’t a Waitrose on the high street of your recognisable town, don’t add one just for the fun of it.

  1. Backstory

Info dumping – the introduction of too much background about your characters in one big chunk is boring and unnecessary. Worse, it shows you up as an amateur. You should be able to trickle vital information into the narrative, in the interplay between characters, or in the dialogue. Like introducing too many characters, too much information at the start of a novel is confusing. At this stage, readers don’t know if it’s essential, useful, or merely padding. You, the writer will need to have the facts to hand – they inform your storytelling – but do your readers benefit?

  1. Head Hopping

Having decided which character(s) will tell the story, it’s not a good idea to keep jumping from head to head. This omniscient method of storytelling has fallen out of favour, though I still come across the occasional novel that manages it well. Are there several narrators in your third person narrative? If so, keep confusion to a minimum by restricting each point of view to one per chapter, perhaps. If you have multiple points of view, consider using line breaks to make this clear, or using different fonts when different characters are centre stage. If it’s a first-person story, remember that you can’t jump into another character’s head and reveal some vital piece of information that the narrator couldn’t possibly know.

  1. You Can’t Please Everyone

Regardless of all I’ve just said, do remember that it’s your story and you can tell it how you like. I’ll end with a tale of my own:  after I had finished my first novel, No News is Good News, and before I sent it out to be considered for a competition, I had the first three chapters professionally edited. This was a rigorous process, to say the least, and I benefitted enormously, as did my manuscript. One thing the editor suggested was a reworking of the opening sentences:

Working in one of the UK’s busiest television newsrooms meant that Eleanor Wragby was often disturbed in the early hours and this morning was no exception. She hauled herself into consciousness, groping for the mobile phone vibrating silently under her pillow, and squinted at the tiny letters of the text message.

The editor advised me to drop Eleanor’s background (info dump!) and combine the two sentences to give a more fluid impression:

The insistent vibration under the pillow brought Eleanor into bleary consciousness and, groping under her pillow, she squinted at the tiny letters of the text message.

I made the changes and sent the manuscript off. It didn’t win the competition, but it was accepted for publication by Accent Press. I only mention this because one of the first reviews I received objected to this new opening sentence on the grounds that it described actions that couldn’t possibly be executed at the same time. One star.

And here’s me thinking that this graceful economy of words would convey a series of actions that follow each other logically and concisely. What do I know….?    

Did Someone Mention Cake?

They say that’s it’s a brave writer who exposes their work to the critiquing of a bunch of fellow writers. And those who do it face to face, in a writing group, must be especially heroic. I am one of these people. I’ve belonged to a local writing group ever since I started writing seriously. I don’t consider myself to be particularly heroic, in fact it takes a certain kind of masochism to lay oneself bare like this, but I do think that the advice I get from this disparate group of like-minded men and women has helped my writing career progress.

Writing groups take different forms. Some read out all their work and invite comments from members. We do things slightly differently – producing hard copies for everyone to take home and study properly. As well as storyline, we look at grammar and punctuation (we are very hot on the apostrophe), layout and presentation, none of which is evident when hearing a piece read out loud. Some groups don’t meet physically at all, getting together regularly online instead. Saves on rent, and you can have members on all seven continents. Horses for courses, I guess.

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Critical mass part 2

Criticism is part and parcel of the writing process. Without it we will never know if our work is any good, but to benefit the writer the comments must rise above the personal – those kindly responses that don’t offend but don’t offer anything useful either – and address the problems with the writing itself, rather than with the writer.

My mother always used to say, If you can’t think of something pleasant to say, don’t say anything. This might be useful advice in some areas of my life, but it’s completely useless when critiquing another’s work. Writers, particularly beginners, want to know if their work hangs together, makes a thumping good read, has believable characters and plot. Some even want to know if they’ve got the spelling and punctuation right, too. Hearing that the result of sleepless nights, tortuous plotting sessions and numerous rewrites is ‘quite a nice read’ is more likely to send us into a slough of depression than any amount of constructive criticism.

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Beginner’s luck pt 2

Now that we’ve sorted out the peripherals, we can get down the process itself and examine some of the rules of writing from a beginner’s perspective. A lot of what is written about the art of writing applies to those who’ve been writing a while. It’s easy to get bogged down in does and don’ts even before you pick up a pen or sit at a keyboard.

But before I begin, I must add a note about a point I made a few posts ago. Regulars to this blog might remember I was having a go at Stieg Larsson for leaving a plot point hanging – see the ‘Chekhov’s Rifle’ post. Well, I have some humble pie to eat. I complained that one of the main characters in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ had a perfect opportunity to use a weapon she had previously dropped into her pocket, but she didn’t. I wondered at the time whether Larsson had just forgotten about it.

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Sleepless vigilance

I had a bit of a mental meltdown this week, and I couldn’t think of anything to blog about until I found myself talking with some like-minded people about the lamentable and ongoing corruption of the English language. That got me thinking. I mentioned a well-known apocryphal tale from the First World War as a humorous illustration. You know the one – the message, “send reinforcements, were going to advance“, is sent from the battlefield back up the chain of command. When it arrives at its destination, the message is received as “send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance“.  It’s an extreme example but it demonstrates how easily our language can be altered and distorted when we rely on the spoken word.

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Criticism….can you take it?

As writers we are often called upon to critique another’s work. Maybe in a creative writing class, a writing group or even a friend who needs some independent input. But whenever we produce a sizeable piece of work ourselves, we should also be able to take a step back and look at it dispassionately. Just as we have a mental checklist to guide us through an assessment for a third party, so there are a number of points to check when reviewing our own work. This list is presented in no particular order of relevance or importance.

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