Is Any Story Ever Really Perfect?

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Writing the perfect novel

How do you know when a novel – or short story, for that matter – is finished?

At what point should you stop tinkering, put down the quill, lean back in your overstuffed armchair and say to yourself “Right, done! Now to publish”?

The greatly-missed Iain Banks once said:

Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.

You can hear the years of experience in the quote – there speaks a man who learnt the hard way. Because, of course, we all want to publish the most perfect book we possibly can. And we’re artists, so there’s always a different way to express something, a fancier adjective, a more elegant turn of phrase, a slicker exposition…

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Developing Your Characters: What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?

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Developing characters in your writingA writing teacher (and multi-published novelist) once told me that to really understand a character you’re writing, you should make a list of the items they carry in their pockets.

While I hate to disagree with such an august mentor, I’m afraid that I simply have to.

You see, if you take a peek in my pockets at this very moment – an undertaking from which I heartily dissuade you – you will find a handkerchief, some small change and a couple of buttons which popped off my coat. A character who uses money, occasionally blows his nose and shivers a lot does not a compelling story make.

This may be different for the fairer sex. I have never plucked up the courage to venture into the deepest recesses of a lady’s handbag, so am not intimately acquainted with the traditional contents of such. However, I suspect them to be of an equally utilitarian nature; I would hazard a guess at purse, travelcard, keys, phone and a little spare make-up.

Show me the woman who carries a blunderbuss, a taxidermied stoat and an assortment of kazoos in her bag and I’ll show you a story!

A Room With Views
In short, the whole pocket exercise doesn’t really work for me. No. Far more telling and illustrative are the items which characters have dotted around their living room. In a supposedly private space, we reveal far more of our true natures and past lives than we could ever fit in a pocket.

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Mind The Gap!

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Writing tips - avoiding plot holes

Plot holes, those devious little blighters, have a knack of popping into existence just where you least expect them.

I am not the kind of chap who outlines a novel before jumping in to the fun of writing it. Broad brush strokes, a skeleton framework of ideas and then it’s chocks away! My transatlantic friends call this being a ‘Pantser’ – flying by the seat of one’s pants as the story takes one from point to point in a free-wheeling, fast-flowing fashion. Being from the side of the pond where the cucumber sandwich still reigns supreme, the term ‘pants’ has less savoury connotations for me. No, Pantser will not do at all. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a Trouserist.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that I don’t have the luxury of writing every day. Much as I would love to, the demands of daily life and a mortgage mean that I often struggle to find the time to write. Progress on the novel is sporadic, at best.

I am a self-confessed Sporadic Trouserist.

And that is where the plot holes worm their insidious way in… (you don’t want holes in your sporadic trousers, I assure you).

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The Secret To Motivating Yourself To Write

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Writing motivation

In my previous post, The Unicycle Of Prevarication, I explored how we indie authors often self-saboutage by “not being able to find the time” to write. This, despite the multitude of less pleasurable things we do find the time for, such as cleaning the moat or milking the peacocks.

Today, I intend to lay bare the One True Secret of how to find the time and motivation to write even when the odds seem stacked against you like handcarts against the barricades.

But first, I feel I need to issue a warning.

WARNING: You’re not going to like the answer.

You see, there genuinely is an answer to the eternal problem and it’s one that I’ve learned the hard way over the five years in which I’ve been occasionally toying with, and occasionally grafting at, my first novel. Are you ready to find out what it is? Excellent. But first, please put down any sharp objects you may be holding, as I don’t wish to find myself impaled.

Here goes then…

You have to force yourself.

I said you wouldn’t like it, didn’t I?

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The Unicycle Of Prevarication

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Why writers avoid writing“No, really, I DO want to write, I just haven’t had the time!”

How often has that line played out in your head? If you’re anything like me, probably around 1000 times a week I’d guess. And that’s on the quiet weeks.

We want to write in exactly the same way we want to go to the gym, or train for a run, or learn to unicycle. They’re all things that, once we’re actually in the process of doing them, we enjoy. But they also have one other factor in common – it takes a great deal of effort and commitment to start doing them instead of doing something easier instead.

Here’s a perfect example: this weekend I was absolutely, definitely going to commit at least one hour to my current novel. I did it last weekend and it felt amazing. Only, this weekend, I also had to take the cat to the vet. And then hit the sales to buy a new pillow (there’s no stopping the rock ‘n’ roll some days, I tell you!) Oh yes, then to the supermarket to pick up ingredients for dinner, followed by creating a pie for the aforementioned repast. By which time it was 8pm, I was tired, hungry and there was some mindless TV on.

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Changing With The Times

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Harold Lloyd

I have discovered that my protagonist speaks differently at different times of the day.

After reading Kisa Whipkey’s splendid post How To Fix The Morphing Voice earlier this week, I started to notice my own oscillations (as it were!) I began considering not only how to fix these, but why the morphing began in the first place.

It’s partially due to the same problem of being a slow writer – there’s a lot of life going on outside the writing, which makes the process more protracted than I’d like. That naturally affects the flow of scenes.

But I also discovered that my narrator’s voice depends very much on the time of day. In the mornings, he’s bouncier, wittier and more free-flowing. By the afternoon, he’s fairly easy-going but somewhat more verbose, with a tendency toward flippant sarcasm. As evening rolls in, he becomes contemplative and philosophical. Or drunk.

I don’t have the kind of daily routine which permits me to write at the same time every day, so it’s a challenge I have to endure. Yeah, OK, ‘endure’ is a bit over-the-top, but you get my drift daddy-o.

Does anyone else find the same vocal time-shifts creeping in? How do you overcome them?

The Future of Storytelling

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The FutureWhatever your feelings on eBooks and eReaders, there can be no question that digital storytelling is with us to stay. The debate rages on about the merits and drawbacks of each medium, with the one true essential often getting lost: namely, that it is the content which is paramount, not the method of delivery.

A great story is a great story whether it’s spoken aloud around a campfire or downloaded to a mobile device.

But what of the opportunities to enhance a great story and create something truly outstanding? Part of my lingering reluctance to adopt eReaders in favour of paper (which I’ve touched on in a recent post) is based on the fact that I’m waiting for the Next Big Thing. Regardless of the convenience afforded by a slim tablet housing an entire literary library, the sheer viscerality of paper still held sway for me.

Until now. Now I have seen The Future and it’s mind-blowingly exciting.

It looks like this: ‘Avalanche at Snow Creek’

No longer is a digital story limited to being a straightforward rendering of the physical book. True immersive multimedia has come of age and is enhancing the reader’s experience at every turn. As you scroll through the pages of ‘Snow Creek’ you fall further and further into the account until you can almost feel the snow pressing in around you and hear the search-and-rescue teams calling out in increasing despair.

The advent of HTML5 – the latest standard for web markup language – enables storytellers to add dimensions to their words which will take the reader to a whole new level. Yes, of course we still want the reader’s imagination to do most of the work and forge their own images around the tales. And yes, of course we must still craft and revise and polish our words and phrases to enable them to deliver that world to the reader.

That has always been the storyteller’s trade and passion, regardless of medium. Except now, we have a whole new box of tools with which to expand the horizons for our readers and make our stories live. And that can only be a good thing.

How will you embrace the new to bring extra dimensions to your work?

Now We Are One

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Happy Birthday Jumping From Cliffs

It’s just over a week since a landmark passed me by unnoticed.

Jumping From Cliffs turned one year old this month! I published my first ever post on the 23rd of May last year.

It’s quite extraordinary where the time goes isn’t it??

It set me to thinking about what, if anything, I’ve achieved in my writerly ambitions in that time. And you know what? Actually quite a flippin’ lot thank you very much!

*grin*

  • I have finished the first draft of Dark Energies
  • I have made my first pitch to a real-life baby-eating literary agent
  • I have courageously shared a sample of my writing with the unsuspecting public at large (yep, that’s you lovely people)
  • I have won awards (thank you all again!) – some of which I have taken up, others of which I simply had to put on a back-burner due to lack of time and a dearth of captivating facts to impart about myself

And the list continues…

Well poke me with a fish-fork if that isn’t really quite a lot for 365 days. Who would have thought it when that first tentative post staggered and stumbled its newly-born way into the spotlight glare of the internet?

However, two things in particular stand out as the finest and proudest moments of my journey so far…

1) I have learned a truly STAGGERING amount about the art and craft of writing which drives all of us through every waking – and many a somnolent – moment. It has been said far more eloquently by far greater writers than I, but immersing yourself in creativity and surrounding yourself with talented people really does teach you far more than you ever thought possible.

Which leads me, in customarily long-winded manner, to the other Most Important Thing:

2) I have met the most incredibly supportive, encouraging, talented, enthusiastic, creative and utterly unspeakably wonderful (and, of course, terribly beautiful) bunch of fellow blogging writers that any man could wish to have yomping along by his side.

Yep, that’s you lot again.

Your blogs, along with your comments on mine, have taught me, encouraged me, motivated and inspired me beyond measure.

So grab yourself a piece of cake and a fancy party hat (mine’s the pith-helmet) and join me in celebrating! And, unless I get eaten by a Tyrannosaurus, I’m thoroughly looking forward to continuing this amazing adventure over the next 365 days.

A Piece of String

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Cat measuring string

Image courtesy of Stefan Tell

I have stalled.

A couple of weeks ago I fired off the first 50 pages of my first novel to the first agent I have met. A week of firsts.

With the sense of a job well done and 4 years well spent in writing the novel, I then settled back and waited for my ship to come steaming into the harbour amid a riot of confetti and bunting.

And I waited…

And I waited…

I waited some more…

Then I did a bit of pacing about…

Then I went back to waiting…

I really am rather concerned about this agent. Clearly he has been taken gravely ill. Or has lost his job. Or is embroiled in a protracted and painful relationship meltdown. Or is stuck in a shed. Or has been eaten by badgers. Or his eyes have fallen out.

Surely he can’t just not like the book and isn’t telling me? Impossible! Inconceivable!

Maybe my email got caught by his spam filter and any day now he will spot it sitting there.

I shall go back to waiting.

The question is… how long does one wait before chasing up an agent? Is two weeks inappropriately needy of me? Or does it imply that I set too little stock by the quality of my work? Should I have called last week? Should I email tomorrow?

Meantime, while all of this is going on, I have, as I stated at the very outset, stalled. I have written not one word in those past two weeks, nor have I pursued the myriad marketing opportunities for my book and my personal author brand (OK, I hate the phrase “personal brand” because I reject entirely the notion of people as brands, but it fits here so I’ll cheapen myself and use it). I have, in short, assumed that just one phone call away was everything I have ever dreamed of.

The most nonsensical part of this whole farago is that I know for absolute fact that there is an immense chance of getting rejected by every agent on the planet, yet still I thought: “Ha. Jolly good. Made it first time. Now to relax with a piping hot crumpet and become a world-renowned author overnight.”

I haven’t even submitted the self-same 50 pages to any other agencies yet. I did get as far as underlining a few in the Artists’ & Writers’ Yearbook with an orange pen, as if by some alchemical happenstance this would cosmically alert them to my presence and have them clamouring at my door in a frothing maelstrom of acquisitional lust.

Still waiting…

So, rather like a little field-mouse poking his head out of a stuffy burrow as the first tendrils of spring waft their freshening way to his nostrils, I shall endeavour to shake off the langorous turpitude in which I have been cloaked of late and re-double my efforts.

I shall write. I shall research. I shall pitch and query and synopsificate. I shall do all of this and much much more!!

As soon as I’ve checked to see if my agent has replied…

Guest Post Wednesday!

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Jumping From Cliffs is delighted today to bring you a guest post from the marvellous, magical and magnificent Mr. Andrew Toynbee. You may already be aware of Andrew’s insightful and humorous blog – if not, you most definitely should get acquainted. Soon. On a topic which is insanely relevant to anyone writing in 2013, I asked Mr. T why he decided to self-publish his first novel and here’s what he said…

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asifthebes skys the limit

Why I Chose to Self-Publish rather than doing it the Hard Way.

I appreciate that there is a flavour of irony in the above title – as anyone who has self-published will affirm.

*Pauses for flurry of nods*

The fact is, like many other writers, I once considered self-publishing to be the lowly sibling; the Frank Stallone, the Adam Baldwin, the Brian Murray…well, you get the idea. For nigh on a year, I dismissed the idea of being an indie and religiously (and with growing desperation) submitted query letters to every genre-relevant agency in the country, receiving enough reject notes with which to wallpaper my bathroom.

That’s not something I’m planning to do, by the way.

But, one dark and stormy evening in mid-June (I did say that I lived in England, didn’t I?) as I stared at rejection number 48 of 102 (I only ever received replies from half of the agencies I contacted), it occurred to me that even if the note I was holding had said ‘YES – send us your MS now!!’, it would most likely be a year to eighteen months before my work wriggled out of its chrysalis to flutter its still-damp pages for the first time.

Eighteen months? Sheesh. When I began my novel in early 2010, there was only one other angel romance novel listed on Amazon. One.

I felt the cold chill of time upon my bones. By the time eighteen months had passed, my supernatural romance novel could be as out of date as Homer’s Illiad – or at least find itself swamped by a plethora of similar titles.

I had to act.

That was when I began to pay attention to what other bloggers were saying about self-publishing. Naturally, there were arguments both for and against. One site branded self-publishing ‘the lazy option’; others said it was the new way to go.

In addition to the arguments, a growing set of statistics begged for consideration;

In 2008, 1 million eReaders were sold; in 2009, over 3.6 million shifted. In 2010 that number was expected to triple (it topped between 10 and 12 million, although figures vary). 2011 saw over 27 million sold.* It seemed that we were living in a new age. To continue to embrace the traditional publishing methods, at least at this stage of the game, began to feel like folly.

I know the link below is now out of date (although it was relevant to me at the time), but seeing it again recently helped to remind me exactly why I went down the self-publishing route.

Harper Voyager Announces Global Digital Publishing Opportunity

At the time, the whole process suddenly struck me as archaic; a throwback idea from Dickensian times that was now struggling to compete with the new kid on the block – the eBook.

Now, I mean no disrespect to other bloggers and authors who are still having their work published in this way. I accept the fact that if the opportunity had arisen, I would have done the same – and I would have been happy with it. However, once I’d switched tracks and seriously considered going it alone (Alone? That’s another story!), I was totally committed to the idea of creating an eBook. Although I have pretty much given up on the idea of traditional publishing, it’s still in the back of my mind that one day I may;

  1. pick up where I left off and begin querying all over again or
  2. receive a call from some eager employee of an agency or publisher who has spotted my eBook.

But to be honest, the idea of meeting agents, publishers, booksellers and touring the country to promote my work holds little appeal. I’ve seen what Jenna Burtenshaw has had to do, visiting bookshops on a whistle-stop tour of the UK to promote her books – and as a self-confessed introvert, the idea still fills me with mild dread. I remain happy to churn out words and answer queries from the comparative safety of the WorldWideWeb. Not to mention the fact that I am rarely in my home county, never mind my home town because of my day job.

That said, the thrill of holding an actual bona-fide paper book in one’s hands brings with it a magic that no eBook can match. For those of us who grew up with real books (and it’s sad to think that picture books and bedtime stories may one day be purely electronic), who hasn’t dreamed of seeing their own words slumbering beneath a paper cover, ready to delight, amuse or terrify? But that’s an indulgence for another day. In the late summer of 2012, I was committed to self-publishing. The critic who branded self-publishing as the ‘lazy option’ had obviously never tried it for himself. Considering that traditional publishing comes as a package that includes proofreaders, several editors, a cover artist and a bank of publicists, the self-publisher must rely on their own collection of hats in order to perform all of these duties.

There is also the small stumbling block that the format of the eBook has to be considered and that when one is chosen, it must be converted. True, Smashwords will perform part of that task, but their requirements that the MS must meet certain formatting conditions has dismayed many would-be authors. I won’t go into the virtual nuts and bolts about what is involved with this as many a post has been written already and can be covered again at another time. Suffice to say that the challenge is not insurmountable – but then neither is Everest. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an uphill struggle (gonna wring everything I can out of this metaphor!), but with the right kind of help, summit can be achieved (alright… who groaned?)

As if there weren’t already enough obstacles in the way of producing a good book!

That said, if it was a simple matter for everyone who said, ‘I always thought about writing a book’ to publish, the market would be flooded with half-thought-out drivel that was badly formatted and not worth the ePaper it was electrophoretically printed on. No, only the determined and the dedicated can navigate the ‘lazy option.’ For the moment, that’s a good thing.

If, after reading this, you are still keen on the idea of self-publishing, there are clouds of bloggers (is that a good collective term?) who have been there, done that. All of us have received assistance in some form or another, even if it’s just a pointer (no, not the dog) or inspiration.

It’s a bright new age – embrace it.

My heartfelt thanks to all who have helped me to become part of the ePublishing world.

keep calm

*source; ElectronicsWeekly.com, Geek.com and FT.com