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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Abracadabra!

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The magic trick of self-marketing for writers.

There is one magic trick for marketing your books (or blog or brand or self)…

What’s that you protest? Everyone else tells you “there’s no magic trick to successful marketing?” Yep, I’ve heard that too. Don’t believe them, they’re wrong.

There is one magic trick to marketing and it is this…

Don’t spread yourself too thinly.

Right, off you trot and get on with it.

Actually, woah, hang on… before you go, allow me to elaborate…

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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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Fools, Horses and Writers

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Self-marketing for writersOK, so here’s the thing about marketing yourself as a writer on the interwebz.

It’s bloody hard work.

Hemingway famously said:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

And he never had to use Twitter.

So Who Made You The Expert Then?
“Ah yes,” you may be thinking sagely, “but just who are you, young whippersnapper, to deign to tell me how to promote myself or my novel online? What makes you such a guru eh?”

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Show And Tell

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Show don't tell in your writing

Ah, that most vexatious of subjects – “show, don’t tell.” Advice which is bandied about liberally yet which writers, particularly those newer to the craft, often struggle to comprehend. I speak from experience – it took me years to get my head around the difference between showing and telling.

Yet, like riding a bike or juggling hamsters, it’s a skill which, once learned, will never desert you. Today I offer some examples which I hope will serve to clearly illustrate the difference and give you a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to showing versus telling.

OK, let’s start with a bit of telling shall we?

Lord Farnsworth bustled toward the Orangery. The night air was cold and a light rain was falling.

So far, so factual. A clear description of the weather, very useful if you yourself are planning to go for a walk and wondering if you need your trusty brolly. But it’s not particularly compelling is it? In fact, it’s rather dreary. Much like the weather afflicting his Lordship.

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When Words Take A Holiday

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Rules of writing you can break

“Write,” they all say, “just write.”

To be a writer, one has to write. And one is expected to be able to pull the very act of writing out of a hat at the drop of… erm… another… hat…

Anyway.

“Just write,” they all say. “Plough on through. Whether you feel like writing or not. In the face of writer’s block. When you have so many ideas you can’t choose the next one. In good times, bad times, sunshine and showers, just write!”

That’s another rule of writing I’m breaking, OK?

Sometimes all you can do is not write. Some days you even sit down with the best will in the world and all good intentions of cranking out a couple of thousand words at the very least. You have the time and the ideas.

Then the words don’t come.

Sometimes the words go on a little mini-break to the coast, dragging a suitcase full of fish-paste sandwiches and Cornettos behind them. Then you’re left sitting in front of the keyboard wordless and it’s not very long before motivation, desire and The Muse all sidle away to catch up with the words and get some ozone in their lungs. And, if I know my Muse, a couple of sneaky G&Ts.

You find yourself scraping together clunky phrases, ambiguous sentences, painfully poor prose, excessive alliteration and generally forced writing which is no fun to write or read.

So I think that sometimes it’s OK not to write. You’re still a writer.

Am I right?

Killing Your Darlings

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The Rules of Writing

It seems there’s barely a day goes past without someone somewhere posting about the “rules” of writing. Now, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this; I feel there are far too many so-called rules imposed upon one of the most creative pursuits imaginable.

Creativity doesn’t follow rules – creativity bends, warps and downright breaks rules. Look at James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Dalí, Picasso, Man Ray, John Lydon… you can add plenty of your own favourites to that list.

Or, as Thomas Edison so beautifully put it:

There are no rules here, we are trying to accomplish something

Of course, some rules should be followed, but only because they work. I prefer to consider these principles, not rules. A couple of examples which will be familiar to all writers:

  • Active voice is more dynamic than passive and drives a more immersive story;
  • Showing will deliver a more lasting impression than telling every time;
  • Adverbs will slow down your plot and bog down your readers;

However, there are others which simply beg to be broken in the name of trying something new. One of these, for me, is the advice to “kill your darlings” – that is, no matter how much you love a particular phrase, situation or scene, if it doesn’t fit the story, you have to get rid of it.

Really? Says who?

Unless it’s a major glaring departure from the rest of the book, I reckon you can work it in. OK, so I have a hard time imagining blue-skinned beings from the planet Morgos landing on the deck of the Pequod with laser harpoons – although it would, admittedly improve the tale no end (you can read my thoughts on Moby Dick elsewhere in this blog.)

Otherwise, if you create something of which you are justifiably proud, should you really allow perceived wisdom to stifle that creative impulse and shut it away in a box labelled Conformity?

One of the key purposes of any art form is to bring innovation to light. By adhering too strictly to what should actually be flexible guidelines, writers – particularly new writers – run the risk of inhibiting themselves and diminishing their work. When we start out on the writing journey, we find ourselves suddenly (Elmore Leonard says never to use “suddenly”, but sorry Elmore, been and gone and done it) in the midst of a wilderness with no signposts. So we turn to age-old wisdom and advice. This has to be framed somehow, so is given the label “Rules of Writing.” Before you know it, off we go down the path previously trodden by everyone else and end up creating something which… well… has been done before.

I have one particular phrase in my novel which I love. I’m very proud of it and I believe it encapsulates a feeling we’ve all had at one time or another in our lives. I have never seen it expressed in the way I’ve put it (apologies if that sounds arrogant by the way.)

But…

It didn’t fit within any of the versions of the scene I had written. I knew it was the right place, the right time and the right phrase. But it stuck out like a sore thumb nonetheless. “Kill your darlings,” my inner editor yelled over and over again, “get rid of it!”

So I did. And I missed it. And the scene missed it, And the book missed it.

That’s the point at which I tore up the rule book and decided that rules are indeed there to be broken. It would have been far easier just to lose the phrase and move on. Instead, I stuck to my guns, re-worked a whole chunk of the scene and lowered the prominence of that phrase, so it blended seamlessly.

And do you know what? It works. The scene is stronger, more natural and imbued with greater significance.

So before you succumb to the safer option of following the rules regardless, I say try throwing them out of the window, but make sure they land within easy reach just in case you need them again in future.

Am I wrong? Have you fallen foul of rule-breaking in your own work? Or do you find a little occasional bending a liberating experience?

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?

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

The Ton-Up Club

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ImageIt’s been a very exciting week here at Jumping From Cliffs.

My little blog officially gained its 100th follower!

What can I say?? Apart from “Woooooooo-hoooooooo!! How terribly splendid!”

100 eh? Goodness. Actually 104 now, as I’ve been a little lax in posting about it – put that down to a birthday, a house falling into the sea, woolly mammoths and a spot of pirating.

Scarce did I imagine when I made my first-ever post on the 23rd of May last year that even one single solitary soul would ever take the time to read it. Now there are over 100 in under a year.

To say that I am highly honoured and flattered would be an understatement of some magnitude.

I’d like to say a gigantic Thank You to each and every one of you. I’d come round to each of your houses in person with a cup of tea and a piece of cake if I could.

Whether you’re a Lurker & Liker who pops in, has a read, nods appreciatively then scampers wordlessly off again, or a Committed Commenter who takes the time to engage with the posts and leaves me encouragement, inspiration and motivation, I love you all.

This journey would have got nowhere near this far without all of your support and I would never have met some of the truly outstanding talents and all-round bloomin’ lovely people that I have.

You lot are ace, you know that?

Give yourselves all a hug from me and, on the count of 3 chant in unison: “We’re splendid!!”

Ready? 1, 2, 3…