What makes authors smile?

As Julia Andrews once sang…. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and so forth.

Brown paper packages too – if they have books in them.

I’ve been smiling a lot this week. Authors are like everyone else when it comes to things that make us smile. Lunch with good friends, finding exactly the right birthday card for a family member, progress on my knitting project. In my case, watching Say Yes to the Dress on TV. (If you haven’t watched this – you really must. It’s my secret guilty pleasure.) All these things, and more, make me smile.

But this week has been full of ‘authorial’ smiles. Those are very special. As a rule, we authors can be a tad insecure. Especially about our work. There is often more tearing out of hair than smiling involved in writing a book. But… we do have our moments.

So – what are these mysterious things that make an author smile? Here are my top five.

Seeing a very small number next to your new book on Amazon is a smile worthy event.

1. Publication days.

Letting go of a book you have spent months working on can be hard. I always wonder if it’s any good. Will my readers like it? Are there any things I could have improved? Are there any (heaven forbid) typos or spelling errors or grammatical errors? The answer to the last question is… possibly. Sometimes one slips through the reading and re-reading that goes into a book before it’s published. But…. despite all those fears. Publication days are wonderful. This week my 9th book was officially published. I smiled. A Lot.

 

 

2. Reviews.

Hard on the heels of publication day is the breathless wait for the first reviews, and more obsessive checking on Amazon. When that first review comes – and it’s good. The sigh of relief is quickly followed by a broad smile. Someone likes my book! My characters have found new friends. Definitely smile worthy. Think about that and if the urge strikes you – please do reviews for your favourite authors. They are important to us.

These had me reaching for my handkerchief.

3. Messages from readers.

Up there with a five star review are messages from readers. Authors are pretty easy to find. Websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter make it easy to send a favourite author a message. I send messages to some of my favourite authors when I’ve enjoyed their book. When I get messages from my readers, it is quite possible that I get a bit misty.

This came from one of my Aussie readers. He sent me a screen shot of him ordering my book How cool is that!

4. Planning a new book.

Thinking about a new book is always fun. There are so many possibilities. I sit at a desk with computer, notebook, sketchpad, coloured pencils and a cup of tea. I doodle while my brain goes into overdrive. Then I Google the things I am thinking about – just to make sure they really are feasible. Research is important and can be so much fun. I love it when I stumble across something when researching and realise there’s a whole plot strand there.

My desk in book planning mode…. and yes that IS a Dr Who pen with a TARDIS on the end of it. How could anyone write a book without one?

5. And something very exciting and super secret that I am not allowed to even hint at yet.

I promise I will tell all as soon as I can.  There is one other thing that always always always puts a smile on an author’s face. It usually involves an email. I had one of those emails this week – but I can’t tell you anything at all about it. Not yet. I can almost hear you gnashing your teeth and wanting to know more. Guess what – that’s another thing that makes an author happy – putting a reader on the edge of their seat, desperate to know or read more.

Stay tuned – there will be more news coming soon.

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Plotting with dialogue

The closest I usually get to plotting is a few scribbled notes on odd bits of paper. And usually this starts when the book is half done.

The closest I usually get to plotting is a few scribbled notes on odd bits of paper. And usually this starts when the book is half done.

Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in detail in advance or do you just sit down and fly by the seat of your pants. I tend towards the latter, but in either case, the hope is that the result will be a novel. A good one with realistic characters and a gripping plot.

Last week I was confronted by a sort of third option – plotting with a few lines of dialogue. This a really intriguing idea came from Sophie Weston, who has sold about 12 million books world-wide. That’s a very nice number. Lots of zeros involved. She was speaking at a workshop in London. This is what I took home from that workshop.

Let’s start with the traditional idea of plotting. This involves mapping out the action of the story. I know people who do it on a spreadsheet. Others do it in a document. Post it notes all over a door is another popular method, or a roll of wallpaper and a handful of coloured pens.

In this way, events are mapped out, scenes are described, characters actions and of course the all-important conflicts and resolutions. All good stuff.

At that point, if it were me, I would stop. If I know all that, there’s no reason to write the book. For me the joy of writing is the exploration: the unexpected idea that seems to just flow out of my fingertips without me really thinking about it; the way the characters slowly reveal themselves to me as I write and the times when even I start to wonder if this conflict will ever be resolved. I could never be a plotter.

But Sophie Weston suggested another idea. Dialogue. Not too much of it. Just a few lines where the characters reveal something of themselves, or react to an event. These are the key turning points of the story defined – without the detail.

Think about this moment in Star Wars….

Darth Vader holds a hand out to Luke Skywalker and says.. I am your Father.

Darth Vader holds a hand out to Luke Skywalker and says.. I am your Father.

What a moment. It’s a turning point for the film. It changes everything for Luke. And for Vader. It adds new levels to both characters and to their conflict.  Four words. That’s all it took.

In Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise says to Rene Zellweger – ‘You complete me.’ It’s the moment when he admits he loves her. When planning the story, you could write …. he goes to her house where she is with a group of female friends and then he tells her he loves her. Or, in the outline you could just write three words and let the rest flow naturally as you write.

‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat. ’ In Jaws, this is the sign of worse trouble ahead. You don’t have to decide in advance when and where and to whom that is said. It’s just a line that tells us here is a place where the stakes must be raised.

‘I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.’ In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando gives us his whole character in just two lines of dialogue.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

And let’s not forget Casablanca – with Bogie and Bergman. ‘All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ I don’t have to write a backstory.  That line gives me all the backstory I need to know when I start writing. I can discover the details as I write.

All my books start with the opening scene in my head, and the closing scene. My job is to get my characters from scene one to the last page in a believable and interesting and moving way. I’m going to have a go at writing a key line of two of dialogue before I really get into writing the book. I need lines that say a lot about my story and characters. If I can come up with a great line, I can build the story to that point, without having to map it out scene by scene. I will know where I am  going without writing so much detail that the story looses its freshness and spark.

It’s plotting, without plotting. And without giving away too much of the story to myself.

Thinking about the work in progress, I can see and hear my central character saying ‘I need your help.’ I know who she is saying it to, and just how hard it is for her to say it. That’s already telling me things about her back story and her character. I’m off now to write the next chapter.

Thank you Sophie Weston for the idea. I’ll let you know how I go.

 

Making the perfect man

Superman is possibly THE most famous hero - but even he has flaws.

Superman is possibly THE most famous hero – but even he has flaws.

As writers – we get to make up people. And of course, as someone who writes about love and relationships, that means I get to make up my heroes. Whenever I start a new book – I think about the hero and how to make the best hero. The perfect hero..,

And the answer – to be perfect he has to be imperfect.

It’s the imperfections that make him believable. We will fall in love with him – not despite his imperfections – but BECAUSE of them.

All the things that make him a hero have both a positive and a negative side – and the fun comes with deciding how to use the light and shade to create a character.

I’ve made a list… because lists are good.

Strength

By strength – I don’t mean muscles. Although, let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with muscles. By strength I mean strength of purpose. Someone who will stand by his decisions and convictions in the face of all opposition. Think of Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. He’s three feet tall and has furry feet. He’s not a great warrior – but he is the one to save the world. The fact that he does not have great physical strength highlights the strength of purpose he has.

Then, at the very end of his quest, he weakens… he hesitates before destroying the ring. His sense of purpose fails. That highlights for us how difficult the journey has been. How powerful evil can be if it has corrupted even Frodo.

Of course – it all ends well. That was never in doubt.

A great noir novel by a writer better known for epic fantasy. A marvellously flawed hero.

A great noir novel by a writer better known for epic fantasy. A marvellously flawed hero.

Courage

We know this man – Bruce Willis would play him in an actin film.  He saves the world, tackles the bad guys and puts himself in harm’s way to save a stranger. Or a dog.

But his courage works best when balanced against something he’s afraid of. Something that makes him vulnerable. Or something in his past that weakens him. This is the policeman hero who has fallen into drink and disrepute because of something in his past. Guilt over the death of a partner or a child.

The real courage of this hero is that he eventually overcomes his past to become the man we all know he is meant to be.

Honour

We love an honourable man. A man who knows what is right and will defend it. He will draw a line in the sand and say – this far and no further. We can trust this man to do the right thing.

For me, the honourable hero is Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He is unswerving in his belief in justice. But when we see him through Scout’s eyes at the start of the book, she’s disappointed that he is not like other fathers. He doesn’t do the things that other fathers do. By the end of the book, of course, she has come to recognise his courage and to understand him. In this case, the flaw is no so much a real flaw, as a flaw perceived by the narrator. Or perhaps his flaw is that he is not the perfect father.

I fell in love with Spock's brain - or was it those eyebrows?

I fell in love with Spock’s brain – or was it those eyebrows?

Brains

Smart is sexy. But it’s more than that. We want to be able to look to our heroes for help in a crisis. The hero will figure out who the murderer is, or how to escape the locked room. Or the cure for a disease. Quite often these super smart men will have an innocence or a sense of other-worldliness that is very appealing.

Star Trek’s Mr Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) was a hero of my childhood. I wanted to be as smart as him. I was desperately in love with him when I was about twelve. Of course, his flaw is centred on emotion. Vulcans are not supposed to have them. But he is half human and does. He spends his entire life trying to overcome the emotions that he sees as a flaw… while the rest of us see his lack of emotion as his flaw.

And there’s the whole business with the Pon Farr mating ritual every seven years. That is a bit of an issue too.

Humour

Funny is sexy. That’s why we love romantic comedies so much. A hero who can make us smile will brighten the dark times. Even better if he can laugh at himself.  We know we will enjoy the company of this hero.

In the world of films, Hugh Grant typifies the hero with a sense of humour. It’s all those lovely rom coms. He is funny, but he always flawed – the humour disguises something deeper. Shyness. Or loneliness. Or fear. Or pain.

What we want is to see past the jokes to what lies beneath.

Money

Let’s be honest here – no-one wants to be poor. There’s a reason the heroes in fairy tales tend to be princes. Castles are much better than a peasant’s hovel.

I write contemporary fiction, and in today’s world, rich often means workaholic. That’s the flaw. Our hero has to sacrifice a lot on the altar of success. Or, if he’s one of those princes, there’s the paparazzi and protocol and all that to deal with.

The challenge with this hero is to find something – someone – who will make him step off the fast track. Of course, we really don’t want him to lose all that money.

Shrek got the girl - for all the reasons above - despite being... well.. an ogre. I think I would have preferred the story if Fiona had not turned out to be an ogre too.

Shrek got the girl – for all the reasons above – despite being… well.. an ogre. I think I would have preferred the story if Fiona had not turned out to be an ogre too.

Good looks

We all love a good looking hero. It’s easy the add flaws to a good looking hero – he can be vain. Or he can have too many women trying to seduce him.

But – a hero doesn’t have to be handsome. If he has a good helping of the above traits, we are going to fall in love with him anyway. But… it’s not going to hurt if he looks like Brad Pitt.

So that’s my list – have I left anything out? Apart from Mr Darcy of course… who, for many readers, remains the quintessential flawed hero.

Which flawed heroes have you fallen in love with? And why?

Learning from the master

One of my favourite writers - and a master at character and dialogue. And plot. And humour... and ...

One of my favourite writers – and a master at character and dialogue. And plot. And humour… and …

I’m having a bit of a fan girl thing at the moment – and in between blinking in awe at the light bulb moments, I’m learning a fair bit about how to write. I’ve written ten books (eight published and two more on their way), and won a few awards, but that’s not enough to make me think I know it all – or even that I know a lot. A bit… I think I know a bit about writing, but I’m always looking to learn more.

When signing up for a writing course, or looking for a mentor, I think it’s important that person be someone whose work you admire. If that person’s work is so good it takes your breath away – literally – then that’s even better. So when I found out that Aaron Sorkin was doing an online Masterclass in screenwriting, I couldn’t get my credit card out fast enough.

I am not a screenwriter, although as a movie buff, the idea does appeal. But good story telling is good story telling, whatever medium. Books and films and television all need captivating characters, sparkling dialogue and engrossing plot twists.

And nobody does these things better than Aaron Sorkin. For those who don’t know him – he wrote, among other things – A Few Good Men, The American President, The Social Network, Steve Jobs (the one starring Michael Fassbender), The West Wing, The Newsroom… and a few other bits and pieces. His shelves must be groaning under the weight of all the awards he’s won.

I first discovered Sorkin in The West Wing - which legend says he pitched off the cuff with some leftover ideas from the film The American President. That's what I call a pitch!

I first discovered Sorkin in The West Wing – which legend says he pitched off the cuff with some leftover ideas from the film The American President. That’s what I call a pitch!

The course is a series of lectures and workshops… I’m not finished yet, but I already know that when I have finished, I’ll go back and watch it again. A lot of what he’s saying I have heard before. Or knew already. Or thought I knew. But sometimes, just presenting something in a different way can make all the difference. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m a fan.

Sorkin has written two great film about men who are icons of our time.

Sorkin has written two great film about men who are icons of our time.

Here are a few of the things Sorkin has said that resonated with me, not that I haven’t heard other people say similar things, but because the way he said these things just flicked the switch on some light bulbs.

  • When writing anti-heroes or villains, it is important to identify with them rather than judge them. If you can put yourself in their thoughts, in their point of view, you are less likely to end up with a cliché bad guy.
  • Avoid meaningless research, and look for nuggets that can lead to an engaging plot point. Look for the things you didn’t expect … and don’t worry if you don’t know what questions to ask. Find an expert on that topic and start with “Tell me something I don’t know about…”
  • You will lose your audience if you confuse them. Even the tiniest bit of confusion can ruin the experience. However, be careful of going too far in the other direction – telling them something they already know. And never talk down to your audience.
  • Rewriting is a lot easier than writing, because you have a problem to solve. There’s something wrong with the scene or paragraph or sentence and you have to fix it. Rewriting is NOT the sign of a bad script. It’s the sign of a good writer.

That one in particular has worked for me because I’m been in edits on the latest book as I’ve been watching this.

Brilliant writing - with an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson to make it unforgettable.

Brilliant writing – with an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson to make it unforgettable.

And finally – we’ve all heard of the three act play. That we should structure our books in three acts parts.  I’ve heard many different people try to explain this structure… and some of those explanations have made sense. But this is surely the best and clearest explanation ever….

  • Act 1: You chase your hero up a tree.
  • Act 2: You throw rocks at them.
  • Act 3: You get them down (or not).

Thank you Aaron Sorkin.

I do recommend this course. The next part for me is to watch A Few Good Men. I have the DVD of course. As part of the Masterclass, I’ve been given a copy of Sorkin’s script. So now I’m going to watch and read and try to figure out what makes it so great.

Then I’ll go back to throwing rocks at a character up a tree.

The Sound of Music vs Star Wars

It is with great trepidation that I am about to publicly disagree with a cultural icon.

I am talking about Sound of Music – one of the most awarded films of all time. Five Oscars and The Golden Globe for Best film can’t be wrong. And there were many, many more accolades. It’s one of those films you either love or hate. Most people love it. It’s very dated now, but watching it at Christmas has become a family tradition. Everyone sings along with Julie Andrews and the kids.

Ok – so where do I disagree? It’s with Do Re Mi… and the first line of the song.

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.

(Go on – admit it… you just sang that, didn’t you?)

It's is an iconic scene in an iconic movie. I've seen it at least a dozen time.

It’s is an iconic scene in an iconic movie. I’ve seen it at least a dozen time.

Of course, I’m talking here about where to start a book. I’ve done a lot of critiques for emerging authors who do just what Julie Andrews suggested. They start the book at the very beginning and give the reader time to get to know the characters and their backstory. Then do something to launch the story.

I was guilty of the same thing myself when I started out. A book is a character’s journey and therefore, I thought, we need to really explain and understand the starting point before we set out. I no longer think that.

I think it’s more important to be presented with the characters challenges and fears and conflict as early as possible. The reasons for them – the backstory – can be drip fed into the story at various places throughout the book. Sometimes seeing a character reacting to a situation can work better if we don’t know the backstory. It we haven’t started at the very beginning.

When I was starting out, someone once told me to remove the first three chapters of a book I was writing. I was horrified – but now realise that person was right. I had started the book in the wrong place. And do you know how I knew? I had written a prologue.

Now – prologues are a cause for much debate. In or out?

I tend to think prologues are of two types. One is a genuine flash back to a time and/or place outside the main part of the novel – to an event that will shape the novel. I think this sort of prologue can work.

BUT – I’ve also read prologues that are a flash forward… to an event or action later in the book. The book then builds to that prologue. I’m far less happy with this idea. We all look for the ‘hook’ to drag the reader into our story. If we have to steal a scene from later in the book to be the prologue, that makes me think the book has started in the wrong place. Maybe that prologue should simply be chapter one—and the story can just move forward from there.

Possibly the most famous prologue is the crawl from the opening titles of Star Wars – the first film, which was later re-titled as Episode four.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, George Lucas wrote a prologue

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, George Lucas wrote a prologue

In the crawl, George Lucas tells us everything we need to know to be in the right head space for the film. He originally wrote six paragraphs of four sentences each. This was edited to the final sequence as seen in the film – three paragraphs. 83 words.

He didn’t start at the beginning. In fact – when you look at the Indiana Jones Films, and American Graffiti and probably others, you see that Lucas never starts at the beginning.

Stars Wars won seven Oscars – The Sound of Music won five. And now I think of it, The Sound of Music didn’t start at the very beginning either. It could have started when Maria entered the convent to find it was the wrong place for her. But it didn’t. It started as she left the convent.

So – what do you think? Is the very beginning a very good place to start? Do prologues work for you?

Are you a Sound of Music or a Star Wars kinda person?

Two very different but equally successful films - and both of them started at exactly the right place.

Two very different but equally successful films – and both of them started at exactly the right place.