Do I really need an ‘App’ for my writing?

I didn’t know ‘writing apps’ existed until I was being interviewed for a blog last year and the interviewer asked me which one I used. He was far more digitally sophisticated than me, and seemed surprised that I was plugging away in ‘Word’, saving drafts into files, struggling to find things, taking time to find previous versions and essential research notes. Actually my writing process was even more more messy and muddled than I confessed to him at the time, but it had worked for some years, just about, and I felt “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. scrivener-essentialsHowever inefficient, my approach by last  year was a vast improvement on the frustrating experience of writing my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, which took four years from 2008 to 2012 and nearly went on the back of the fire more than once during that time.

My blogger friend had mentioned Scrivener, and I checked it out. Even the introductory blurb seemed very complicated: in the middle of the first draft of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I was too busy to read it properly and carried on with my usual writing process that may not have been efficient but was at least familiar.

Some months later I ran a workshop on ‘Starting to Write’ at the Borderlines festival in Carlisle in 2016, and decided to mention it to the group, some of whom of course were well ahead of me, but still it felt like something that other people might use, not me.

Another few months on again and in the flush of New Year’s resolutions I’m telling myself that the time has come to try it out properly. I’m at the very early stages of researching and planning the next novel. Already I’ve eased the time pressure on myself by deciding from the start to aim for the summer of 2018 to get this book out, and the time to re-examine my writing process is definitely right. I decided to go straight in, avoiding the various guides to the software, and so this morning I downloaded the 30 day free trial version of Scrivener and have resolved to make myself try it out, patiently and with an open mind.

I have already reassured myself that the software has nothing to do with the content or style of my work, but deals only with the process of drafting in a way that might be helpful. My fear is always that my writing might become formulaic, paying too much attention to the usual protocols, but there’s no reason to believe that using Scrivener as a tool would increase that possibility, at least as far as I can see. So I’m resolved to give it a go. I reckon that by the time the free trial runs out I should have either decided to continue with it or not, and I’ll report my progress then.

In the meantime, if anyone reads this far and has practical advice to offer, I’m all ears. I am going to treat this experience as an intellectual challenge, like learning another language, which is believed to be good for an ageing brain like mine. Bring it on.

Explicit sex in the novel: too much information?

sex‘Fatal Reckoning’ has been out a few weeks now and I’m beginning to get feedback from readers about it. Overall views are very positive, but there are always some who wanted something from the plot which I didn’t choose to provide. In particular, two male readers have regretted  there wasn’t more explicit sex, or a more romantic view of the two protagonists.

They’re right. I could have added a plot development that involves a wedding, and there was opportunity for some more explicit sexual content. So why did I reject both? The wedding thing is easy: I’ve never been a fan of weddings, and both my female lead characters have similar ambivalence. I’m particularly unwilling to represent a wedding as part of the end of a story. ‘Lived happily ever after’ seems to be then required and in my experience that’s not often the case. Does that make me a cynical old feminist? Probably.

My response to the  request for more sex is another matter, less personal, more ‘writerly’. There was one explicit sex scene in my very first book, ‘A Good Liar’ but it wasn’t actually about sex at all: it was about power, and the casual use of physical force that proved to be a turning point in the main character’s view of her lover. The details were necessary to provide the reader with the facts of her humiliation, and to heighten her dilemma about how to react.

As a writer I’ve decided, for the time being at least,  that unless details of sexual behaviour add to either the plot or the readers’ understanding of a character, they should left to the imagination. The writer can feed that imagination with a fragment of detail, – the line of a shoulder, the play of light on skin – but hesitate to do more than that. Verbal descriptions of good sex fall hopelessly short of the real thing, in my view. The act itself is pretty basic and widely understood. Trying to describe in words the complex intertwining of senses and emotions, beyond the physiology of the act itself, is a pretty hopeless task and the result could fall far short of what the engaged reader can supply for him/herself. So why spoil it by explicitness, especially if the outcome detracts from the readers’ potential enjoyment?

Having said all this, I may change my mind by the time the next story gets ‘fleshed out’.

‘Angst’: does it undermine creativity, or inspire it?

There’s a Woody Allen movie – which one is it? – which opens with the young Woody talking to a psychiatrist. The boy is appalled by the idea that the universe is expanding, which he sees as a sign of impending doom. After the ‘angst’ of the past few months, I think I understand how he feels.

First there was the UK referendum decision, which was a shock. I went to bed before the first results came in, and when I turned on the radio the following morning I just sat in bed and cried. The immediate political implications – Boris Johnson? Nigel Farage? Michael Gove? – were dire, and the bigger picture – retreat to an offshore island cut off from Europe – was worse. Since then the future looks no better, with years and millions wasted on untangling a 40 year old legal, commercial and cultural framework that needed tweaking not tearing up.

Then there was Trump, and my mounting disgust at the man and everything he represented and stood for.
trump-hair-birdI longed for him to be not just defeated but annihilated.

 

 

 

 

Again, I woke the morning after the US election to find my worst fears realised. I sat with my head in my hands for a while, trying not to think seeing and hearing the ghastly man for the coming four years, and grieving the departure of the current President whom I and millions of others admire for his intelligence, rationality, optimism, grace and humour. The contrast could hardly be more extreme and disheartening.

There’s nothing to be done about either of these events and all their nasty consequences, but it’s taking me a while to pull myself around. For days I didn’t want to do anything. The new book seemed like a futile gesture, a waste of time. Future writing projects held no interest. But slowly the energy is returning. My writing is something I can do on my terms, inspired by my ideas and the glorious landscape all around me, which is still there and will continue, unless Mr Trump’s nasty little fingers stray too close to the nuclear button. My tiny contribution to creativity can’t overcome fear and hatred and racism and misogyny, but it might just push back a little, and every little helps.

Proof-reading: a wake up call

The reader who approached me at a recent library talk waited until the end of the event and spoke to me quietly. “I really enjoy your books,” she began, and I could tell there was a ‘but’ on its way. “But, I’ve noticed a few mistakes, nothing major, just little things….lots of little things.” My heart sank, but I rallied and mumbled something about the odd inevitable proof-reading problem. “Could you let me know what you’ve found?” I asked her, and thought not much more of it, until the copy of the book in question arrived with the errors painstakingly marked up and a forest of little stickers marking the pages to be looked at.

I am slowing recovering from the shock and embarrassment of what was revealed. Even when I found the delicate pencil stroke in the margin and looked for the error it sometimes took two or three attempts to even see it. They were little things: often an extra or missing short word, and eyes reading quickly for the sense of the sentence floated over without registering it. Very few readers have mentioned the errors to me, and I must have read the offending sections many times and never noticed either, but it’s still unacceptable in properly published material.

Crying and spilled milk come to mind. The book is out there, and the inquest among the editorial team has begun. All of us recognise how the errors have happened, mainly because the people trying to proof-read have been involved in the development and drafting of the story right from the beginning. Familiarity hasn’t bred contempt, just a failure to see each word on the page separate from the context that we all know so well. It has taken a fresh reader, who must read more slowly and carefully than me, to spot what we couldn’t see. I’m very grateful to my amateur proof-reader, and have told her so. She could have been aggressive about it and got my defences up, but her approach was perfect and it worked. If she’s prepared to proof-read all my previous books before they go for reprint, I’d be delighted.

As a self-published author I have the same responsibilities to my readers as a traditional publisher. If it costs more money – probably an additional £400 or so – to hire a professional outside reader for the second proof read immediately before printing, and if that process takes a week or two on top of an already tight schedule to publish one book a year, well that’s what it has to take, and it will be done.

Advice to self-publishers? Don’t cut corners on proof-reading, and don’t try to do it yourself. Once the book is out there with your name on it, the mistakes will haunt and taunt you. Your reputation and your readers deserve the best. Mea Culpa.

 

Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.

What does an editor do?

I’ve never been an editor. I’ve never been on a course on how to do it, or read a manual. But I’ve been on receiving end of a number of editors’ work, and I think I’m beginning to understand what a good editor does. Here’s what an editor does that works for me as a writer.

  1. The good editor asks really good questions about the plot plans as they develop. Some writers don’t plan at all, which means that the editor has to wait till the first full draft is available before they can ask these questions, by which time the writer may be thinking about the effort of re-writing, not whether the editor’s comments are valid. If you’re trying to write a story with twists and turns, as I’m trying to do, it takes more confidence than I have to embark on that without a pretty good idea of how those twists and turns are going to work. A few days ago I sent my editor Charlotte the outline I’d been working on, arranged roughly in chapters so we could both see how the ‘arc’ of the story would look. She read it very carefully, and came back with questions and comments such as: ‘why is that sub-plot left hanging?; ‘is that clue feasible?’; ‘should there be a reference to x earlier in the story?’; ‘does this tie in with the same character’s details in the previous book?’. Because I trust her, and she reads a lot and has a good ear for a story, I consider each point she makes, go back to the outline and think some more. The second draft of the outline is always better than the first.
  2. With some idea of the overall shape of the story, the editor is a good sounding board for key scenes or chapters as the writing develops. Sometimes I agree with the comments or suggestions she makes, sometimes I don’t but it’s a good idea to be asked to think again occasionally. If she likes the ways things are going she’ll say so, which is encouraging when you’re ploughing on day after day, trying to find a balance between a pragmatic need for progress and the search for perfection. Sometimes she and I will talk in depth about a section of the work, and disagree. Then she says, ‘This is your book, so the final decision rests with you,’ and it does. In the early days it took me a while to realise this. It’s easy to feel badgered by an editor when you lack experience and confidence in your own work.
  3. When the first draft is done, off it goes for really careful scrutiny. Now the editor is concentrating on the finer detail. Charlotte is especially good at checking chronology: ‘Surely,’ she might say, ‘the events in Chapter 13 must be on a Sunday, not on a Friday, so would that shop be open?’ The writer might be tempted to respond, ‘Who cares? Poetic licence’ etc, but you and I both know that some reader somewhere will spot any anomaly and tell you about it, which can be VERY irritating.
  4. Second and third drafts will follow, and more, each carefully checked. The daunting process of proof-reading is already underway, and typographical errors are picked up as we go, before the final preparation for submission to printer or ebook publication. Reading the ‘proofs’ is of course the final process, but by that time only minimal changes are possible. Woe betide any writer who wants to change anything much at this point. If you are making both hard copy and ebook versions, conversion from one to the other may create some typographical problems and require further proof-reading. I reckon the last proof copy was read by me, Charlotte and our book designer several times before it went to print and there are still three tiny errors, which kind and careful readers have been quick to point out. These will be dealt with before any reprint. The misprints are usually of punctuation, such as comma instead of full stop, or type-setting such as one extra space between words. It’s embarrassing when someone spots them, but the margin of error is three or so words out of one hundred thousand, which isn’t bad in the great scheme of things.

Charlotte is an old friend as well as a professional editor, so that could be helpful or not, depending on her expertise and our trust in each others’ judgement. It’s good advice not to have a friend teach you to drive, but the editor/writer relationship is  – or should be – less fraught than sitting side by side in a potentially life-threatening situation. I commission and pay for the editing and book design services that she and her partner provide. The book designer handles the layout of the book, works with me on decisions about headings, illustrations and other design matters, chooses and liaises with the printer. Yes. it costs, but the quality of my self-published book is now as good as anything produced commercially, and I have had final word on every part of the process.

That’s how it works for me. I’m interested in how other editors and writers work together.

Point of view and ‘peripheral vision’

I had an eye test this week. ‘Excellent peripheral vision’, said the optician after I looked for the flashing lights at the edges of the screen, pressing the button whenever I saw one. Have you done that test? It’s like a game.So, that means that I can see what’s happening away from the centre of my vision. Maybe that extends to my writing too.

As I carried on ‘plotting’ over the past few days, I wondered whether I am too interested in the ‘peripherals’, that is what’s happening away from the main action of my story, at the expense of the principal storyline. That was the problem with the first novel I ever wrote. What about ‘point of view’? said my ‘professional critic. And it was a fair question. In every scene, what caught my eye was someone at the edge of the action, watching, listening, thinking, reacting. That felt right to me as the writer, but I was persuaded that the reader might find it confusing. So I try now to decide at the beginning of each chapter, whose shoulder am I sitting on in this scene? Sometimes the POV might switch from one paragraph to the next within a single chapter, but that would be rare and deliberate, not continual and accidental as it had been in the first draft of ‘A Good Liar’. I think maintaining that discipline has probably been helpful, but I still yearn for the ‘triangulation’ you can get when the same events are witnessed and commented on by a range of people.

As I prepare to start writing the first full draft of Book 5, I wonder whether I can experiment a little this time: have my previous four books given me permission to push against the constraints of style without losing my readers? Life is complex: the same events can be perceived quite differently by different participants.

We’ll see. As the starting point of writing gets closer I find myself itching to get going, now that the planning and research is almost done. And you know where my cursed peripheral vision is taking me now? Even before I’ve started on writing Book 5, I’m thinking about Book 6.

Stop it, Ruth. Focus. Focus.